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Going Back To College in "Liberal Arts"

Updated on February 20, 2013

The 2012 comedy/drama film “Liberal Arts” explores how one individual attempts to recapture his college days but ends up in a conflicted relationship with a much younger woman. Starring Josh Radnor (star of television’s “How I Met Your Mother”) wrote and directed this enjoyable film about a college admissions officer who returns to his alma mater and strikes up a relationship with a 19-year old student. After finally meeting a young woman he connects with on many levels, he begins to doubt his emotions and must come to terms with his role in life.

Radnor stars as college admissions officer Jesse Fischer at a New York City university who lives a rather mundane life without much luck in achieving a lasting romantic relationship. He receives a call from his favorite professor from his alma mater at a small liberal arts school in Ohio. Professor Peter Holberg (Richard Jenkins), who jokingly refers to himself as a communist to his students, is retiring after 35 years of teaching at the school and has invited Jesse to attend his retirement party. Soon after his live-in girlfriend leaves him, Jesse sees this opportunity to escape his life in New York City temporarily by reliving his college days.

Upon arriving on campus, Jesse is immediately transported back to happier times as a student, a time where he opened himself to new ideas, meeting interesting people, and being inspired by his professors. He meets Professor Peter Holberg at his home and they go out to lunch with Peter’s married friends and Jesse meets their 19-year old daughter Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who is a drama major at the school. At the retirement dinner, Professor Holberg begins to have doubts over his decision to retire but still thanks every one of his friends and former students for their support over the years. As Jesse roams the campus that night, he comes across Nat (Zac Efron), a student with a Bohemian attitude towards life who invites Jesse to a party. As Jesse feels out of place as a 35-year old surrounded by drunken college students, he runs into Zibby. They have a short chat but agree to meet for coffee the following day. As they spend the day together, they soon connect on their love for literature, music, and their outlook on life. For Jesse, Zibby represents a mature-for-her-age counterpart and it takes a chance meeting that he makes a connection. Unfortunately for him, there is a 16-year age difference between the two and it is only a shame he was unable to meet a person like her when he was a student. Jesse leaves Ohio to return to New York City but becomes pen-pals with Zibby so that they could remain in touch with each other.

Over time as the two correspond with each other over their respective lives in Ohio and New York City, Zibby admits to Jesse that she misses him and invites him back to visit. While conflicted over any romantic emotions he’s developed for Zibby, he assures himself that their 16-year age difference wouldn’t be a problem once they’re older, mature adults. Meanwhile, Professor Holburg has completely regretted his decision to retire and asks for his old job back. After being turned down as the university had already hired a new teacher, Holburg remains depressed as to his future and his role in life. As Jesse and Zibby grow closer, they hit a snag when he learns of her love of a certain un-named series of young adult novels that center on romantic vampires. By criticizing her on this after reading the book for himself, he feels as though Zibby is still stuck in youth mode and has not exactly reached the maturity level Jesse is seeking in a mate. Jesse and Professor Holburg’s life begin to parallel as they are faced with uncertain futures. Jesse feels like he may be losing the closest connection he’s ever had while Holburg feels as though he now lost his one true passion in life that is teaching. In a moment of a life crisis, Jesse has to decide if he wants to pursue a relationship with a younger woman or if he should embrace the life he’s created as an adult living and working in New York City.

Going Back To College

As a graduate of a large public state school who has many fond memories of my college days as a young adult, I felt a connection with Jesse’s character and his immediate sensation of being back on campus. As he merrily strolled along the quad with fond memories of every spot on campus, he passes by current students who may be taking their college days for granted. For anyone who has re-visited their alma mater after years of being away, memories instantly rushes through your head for every familiar spot you see. Jesse obviously holds higher education in his heart by pursuing a career as a college admissions officer. In the opening sequence, quick cuts of various interviews of prospective students take place as he describes what the un-named school he represents has to offer. I suppose he chose this profession because he wants to be in a position to meet students who have yet to have the college experience. Of course, anyone who has attended college knows that there are ups and downs and that sometimes a higher education just isn’t for everyone. But for Jesse, his college experience has left an impressionable mark and holds an idealistic passion that he hopes to pass on to prospective students.

When returning back to his alma mater, Jesse runs into his second-favorite professor, Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney), who taught Romantics Literature. When he was a student, he had sort-of a physical attraction towards her and seeing her again brings back those memories, despite the fact that her reputation as a bitter, cold-hearted person remains amongst the faculty. When things get complicated with Zibby, it’s a chance meeting at a bar with Professor Fairfield that Jesse begins to realize that perhaps love and sex is too complicated, even for himself who deems himself a mature adult. As the film progresses, Jesse learns that life, whether it be in college or an adult with a career and responsibilities, will always present itself with bad days and terrible circumstances. However, it’s the really good days that make it all worthwhile.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Upon watching Jesse and Zibby’s friendship unfold and his conflicted attraction towards her form the plot of the film, Zibby struck me as a type of stock character that has been popping up in many comedy/drama films over the past several years. “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, is described as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." Rabin coined the term when describing the character Claire Colburn (played by actress Kirsten Dunst) from the 2005 film “Elizabethtown.” Other examples of Manic Pixie Dream Girls include Penny Lane (played by actress Kate Hudson) in the 2000 film “Almost Famous,” the character Summer (played by Zooey Deschanel) in the 2009 film “(500) Days of Summer,” and Sam (played by Natalie Portman) in the film “Garden State.” Rabin points to Katherine Hepburn’s character Susan Vance in the 1938 film “Bringing Up Baby” as the earliest example of this character as well as Holly Golightly (played by Audrey Hepburn) in the 1961 film “Breakfast At Tiffany’s.”

However, it feels like lately these types of characters are showing up more and more, particularly in independent films that cater to younger audiences. I suppose what helped shaped my idea of Zibby being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is because I am unfairly comparing “Liberal Arts” with the film “Garden State.” Both films were written and directed by performers who are mostly known for their work in television sitcoms. At the time, Zach Braff was the star of the hit sitcom “Scrubs” on NBC. Currently, writer/director of “Liberal Arts” Josh Radon is the star of the hit CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” I will say that I give respect to both individuals for their desire to branch out into film by creating their own stories that feel like much of the characters and storylines are derived from real people and real events in their lives. Not to say that these two films are exactly the same or that one copied the other one, but that perhaps this is a good sign that actors are being able to have the opportunity to write the stories they want to write and make the films that they want to make.

For Zibby, she is a girl who happens to find an equally intelligent, outgoing counterpart in Jesse and happens to be the one that doesn’t find a problem with their age difference, even if they just remain friends. To her, age is nothing but a number. Jesse, however, has trouble in accepting the fact that he is attracted to a 19-year old and worried how their relationship would be perceived by others. In one particular scene, Zibby asks Jesse to take their relationship to the next level and Jesse does not know how to handle it as he feels he might be corrupting a young woman. When Zibby offers Jesse to take her virginity because she has finally met someone she trusts enough, Jesse declines because he’s learned that sex complicates things and says that he cannot do it because he likes and respects her too much, to which she replies that his reasoning is “the saddest thing ever.”

While promoting the film in an interview with the U.K. publication Wonderland Magazine, Elizabeth Olsen was asked if she agreed that her character represented the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. At first she admitted that she was unfamiliar with the term. Once the interviewer explained the concept to her, Olsen replied, “Well I didn’t [agree], I thought of her as someone who hasn’t found the person she thinks she can connect with. It’s just too bad that the first person she feels that way about is the exact wrong thing she needs. I think it’s really sad. When she says it’s the saddest thing ever, it is – to feel like you know what you want someone to give you and you think you find that, but it ends up being the wrong person. It is sad.”

I do happen to agree with Olsen’s interpretation of the character, so in doing so I cannot say Zibby and this film as a whole completely represents the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. “Liberal Arts” offers a satisfactory and logical ending that is more along the lines of how “(500) Days of Summer” concluded rather than the more “happy love story ending” that concluded with “Garden State.”

For the most part, “Liberal Arts” is an enjoyable film, at least for me in the sense of bringing back my own college memories and reflecting on them as an older adult. Well written with many great actors, I’m glad to see someone like Josh Radnor has been able to branch out with his own creative endeavors, as he continues as a writer-director with his second film, after the 2010 film “happythankyoumoreplease.” The film is able to take on a more realistic take on love and companionship while dealing with age differences and one’s role in life and what they want to achieve. If there’s one thing to take away from the film, it is to embrace the present.


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    • JamieHGarrett profile image


      4 years ago from North Carolina

      Great review of a very good film. I love it mainly because it is Radnor's debut, and for a first film, it is really good. Plus I love Elizabeth Olsen. Good review!!


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