I first saw this movie at the ideal moment of my life. I stumbled upon it a couple years after it was released; probably around 2014 when I was 26, which would put me squarely between the ages of the two protagonists: 35-year-old Jesse (Josh Radnor) and 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). This made it easy for me to empathize with both of their perspectives, though I had no use at the time for the third subplot: the uneasy retirement of Professor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). Zibby’s disdain for young adulthood and Jesse’s nostalgia for fleeting youth both felt real for me, and their blossoming romance felt like the symbolic union of the two.
How times change. Now I am almost exactly Jesse’s age, as you might have figured out if you did the mental math, and, upon revisit, this movie seems astringent. It’s not exactly bad; it has some insights on the collision between curiosity, youth, and nostalgia. But I’m not sure how I ever thought the balance between Jesse and Zibby was even remotely fair; the film doesn’t really give us any reason for Zibby to be drawn to the milquetoast Jesse. Maybe I’m a judgmental cynic, but when I encounter adults my age who excessively romanticize their college years, it doesn’t make them seem like free-spirited and intellectually voracious thinkers, so much as it suggests a state of arrested development (which Liberal Arts seems only half aware of).
On the other hand, Professor Hoberg, the character who bored me eight years ago, might actually be the most interesting part of the whole movie. Like Jesse, Hoberg doesn’t know how to move to the next stage of his life, so he clings to the past in desperation. But in this case, the film is keenly aware of his psychological block and gives the character time to process through that. The same can’t be said for Jesse.
The whole thing feels like a NutraSweet Woody Allen impression; most of the edge and neurosis that Allen brings to his films has been diluted so that the whole thing feels a bit colorless. Though the film is built around a Manhattan-esque fling between a teen student girl and a man several years her senior, it goes out of its way to both confront the ookiness and to minimize it. (To be clear, I much prefer this to Manhattan’s unflinching idealization of its romance.) For starters, Zibby is older than eighteen, and she drives every step of the relationship. By the end of the film, the most potentially sleazy and salacious plot twists have been avoided in favor of something that pivots the story back towards Jesse’s introspection. This is, after all, a movie by a middle-class white intellectual and his own grappling with his stunted growth; like I said, an Allen impression (though perhaps Garden State, another dramedy written, directed by, and starring a sitcom star from the 2000s, would be a better comp).
I fear I make it sound too dour and dull, but it’s a breezy and occasionally witty watch. There are some fun moments and performances. Zac Efron, an actor I’m always delighted to see, goes against type as an enlightened stoner who serves as Jesse’s spiritual guru. Allison Janney makes a cameo and devours her three scenes as a cougar professor. And there’s a montage about discovering the pleasures of classical music that’s really fun and well-edited, buoyed by some all-timer tunes that would liven up even the worst film (though I had trouble buying that an aspiring man of letters like Jesse would have so little knowledge of great music).
Overall, it just feels like a lot of navel-gazing; decently-written and -acted navel-gazing, but the point stands. You need to be on its wavelength to get much out of it. I did at 26. At 34, not so much.