As directed by actor Josh Radner (TV’s How I Met Your Mother), Liberal Arts plays out the common fantasy of returning to university ten years older and wiser. Radnor’s Jesse is a 35-year-old New Yorker invited back to his Ohio alma mater to attend the retirement festivities of his erstwhile mentor (Richard Jenkins); in one of those plot contrivances baked up in the Sundance Lab, he’s all too ready for a change of scenery, having just split up with his girlfriend. On his first afternoon on campus, Jesse runs into peach-ripe 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who naturally has a thing for older guys, and introduces our boy to the wonders of classical music (“Beethoven: whoa”) as he wonders what, exactly, to do with her.
“Why do I like this guy so much?,” Zac Efron wonders of Jesse, in his good-for-the-poster bit-part as another of this campus’s resident kooks. “Because he’s… likable,” is Zibby’s response. Like August’s Take This Waltz, Liberal Arts establishes itself very quickly as one of those nice indies – let’s call them nindies – in which terribly likable characters do everything they can not to have to say no, thus deferring any conflict. To anyone raised on an American indie sector that actively sought out real-world hardships to address – as opposed to what Zibby defines as the general “suckiness” of the post-grad world – Liberal Arts will feel dramatically thin: a film notionally set in the higher education sphere of 2012 surely ought to at least pay lip service to departmental cutbacks and reduced job prospects.
Scraps of interest pop up along the way, however. In what amount to recurring cameos, those wily veterans Jenkins and Allison Janney (as an embittered English lecturer) conspire to do something unexpectedly flinty with the tofu crumbs Radner’s script leaves them with. There’s also a degree of pleasure to be taken from watching Olsen, this year’s female breakthrough star, trying to give this fantasy some grounding and spontaneity – though after the extreme experience of Martha Marcy May Marlene, she convinces as a 19-year-old only as much as the kids on Glee now do as high-schoolers, and not at all as a sexual naïf.
It’s just that, in his feature debut, Radner struggles to suggest much of a personality – either before or behind the camera – beyond that of a bearded sitcom softie. A couple of ruminative, even truthful scenes late on raise its grade, but overall Liberal Arts plays like an extended version of the kind of middle-of-the-road sofa-fest you might relax into on E4 any other weeknight. Compare it to Peep Show’s second-series back-to-Dartmouth episode, an altogether sharper and funnier rendering of the exact same scenario, and its shortcomings as both comedy and drama become rather too apparent.
Liberal Arts opens in selected cinemas from today.