Josh Radnor’s new comedy-drama traces a blossoming campus romance, and proves that listening to Mozart, Massenet and Vivaldi really does make the world seem a better place. Nick Shave finds plenty to enjoy in this gentle, coming-of-age tale.
One of the most memorable episodes in director Josh Radnor’s feature Liberal Arts takes place when Jesse (played by Radnor), a thirtysomething university admissions director, listens to the classical compilation his romantic admirer, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), has sent him. Walking the streets of New York, listening on earphones, he smiles as the people around him seem transformed by the music he hears: Mozart’s ‘Soave sia il vento’ makes every passer-by seem like a ‘viable romantic partner’, Vivaldi turns one into ‘a double agent, knee-deep in some kind of sexy espionage’.
‘I found that if I replace the shouting with, say, Schubert or Telemann, the city becomes unbearably beautiful,’ he says.
These images of transformation – Radnor smiling as the world passes by in slow-motion – represent a turning point for Jesse, not just in terms of his musical tastes (as a fan of indie rock, he is embarrassed by his own enjoyment of opera), but in the development of his relationship with Zibby, a 19-year-old drama student with whom romance is blossoming as they exchange letters. Her compilation CD has opened his ears to classical music, introducing him to an entirely new soundworld, and it’s that moment of musical discovery that resonates. The process of self-discovery it entails, and the self-conscious romance between them – set to the surging strings of Massenet’s ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs – is less convincing.
But then, this quirky, coming-of-age comedy seems designed for sitcom-like viewing, gently exploring complex themes of self-discovery, the role of higher education and literature. The film begins with a series of scenes (ramped up by the slide guitar of Moby’s ‘The Poison Tree’) in which Jesse is struggling to cope with grownup life in New York: his clothes are stolen from the laundrette, he breaks up with a girlfriend, and wakes up in his apartment alone. When his favourite tutor, Peter, invites him to his retirement dinner, Jesse is drawn back to his alma mater, Kenyon College, Ohio, and before long he is reliving his memories on campus, where once there were ‘infinite choices’ ahead of him.
This mid-life crisis of sorts brings him into contact with a range of eccentric characters: the way-out space cadet (Zac Efron), the loner manic depressive (John Magaro) and the acerbic Romantic literature professor (Allison Janney). And of course, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a self-assured student of improv theatre, in which the performer, she tells Jesse, must always answer ‘yes’. She has a yearning to learn more from Jesse, and in the romance that subsequently blossoms, both Radnor and Olsen naturally embrace the emotional journey of a relationship in which age is a barrier, experience is prized, and music, like literature, has the power to open up new and more meaningful horizons. Overall, it’s a gentle, affectionately drawn amble of a movie whose humour and life observations less grabbed me, than made for mildly engaging viewing.
Nick Shave is a writer and contributing editor to BBC Music magazine and the Guardian.
Here’s our Spotify playlist that includes music featured in the film
You can also purchase the official soundtrack
Liberal Arts is in cinemas now and full details can be found on the Liberal Arts Facebook page.