“Liberal Arts” is an annoyingly unoriginal and pretentious film that fools you into thinking you might learn something in the end. It shows the failed endeavors of a stunted man trying to recapture his youth, perhaps revealing a little too closely the unrealistic mindset of actor-director Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother,” “Happythankyoumoreplease”).
“Liberal Arts” tells the story of Jesse Fisher (Radnor), a 30-something admissions director for some nameless New York college, who has lost his direction in life. When his former professor (Richard Jenkins, “The Cabin in the Woods”) invites him back to his alma mater for a retirement party, Jesse immediately accepts, because, frankly, he has nothing better to do. There he meets college student Zibby, played by indie darling Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) in a shining performance that is worthy of her rising star status.
While Radnor efficiently captures the frustration that previously idealistic men face once they get over the zeal of their 20s, it is the rest of the movie’s nostalgia-baked, pseudo-intellectual tone that brings it down. At some points the film seems like it’s trying to voice its cynicism for the idealism of youth and the disillusionment of adults. At other points it just seems like an indulgent exercise for Radnor to relive his glory days.
Once Jesse and Zibby fall in love in perhaps the cheesiest romantic montage ever (set to classical music of all things), it becomes clear that “Liberal Arts” was setting itself up to be as hopelessly romantic as its characters. It’s sweet at first, but once you realize the montage was not at all ironic, the movie lost all its charm.
As the two bond over their similar academic interests and stimulating conversation, the other characters find themselves falling to the wayside. Jenkins and Allison Janney (“The Help”) are seriously underused as Jesse’s former professors with very different viewpoints on life. Jenkins’ subplot simply goes nowhere, and Janney, while playing her usual, delightfully snide self, becomes a rather archetypal stock character.
Surprisingly, Zac Efron (“New Year’s Eve”) was one of the best parts of the movie. Relegated to a stereotypical role as the hippie guru to Jesse’s lost soul, Efron was positively hilarious in a potentially thankless role, milking the few minutes of screen time for all it was worth.
“Liberal Arts” puts on the pretenses of a good indie film. It has an odd array of characters whose intellect set them apart from the real world. It manages to make a college campus look gorgeous, basking in the aura of nostalgia. It plays with an unconventional romance stimulated by a want for something beyond the mundane.
But it does all these things with little substance beneath it. It preaches empty words. It plays classical music for the sake of seeming smart. For a movie that’s all about comprehending life and romance, “Liberal Arts” sadly seems to understand none of these.