Full of quippy dialogue, banal observations, paper-thin characters and pat resolutions, “Liberal Arts” is two deodorant commercials away from being a forgettable new TV sitcom. Whether or not it’s a coincidence that the film’s writer, director and star, Josh Radnor, is himself a sitcom leading man is up to history to decide.
Radnor stars as Jesse, an admissions officer for an unnamed New York City university, who returns to his beloved Midwestern alma mater to celebrate the retirement of his close friend and former professor Peter (Richard Jenkins). During the trip, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the college-age daughter of some of Peter’s other, older friends.
Jesse and Zibby initially meet over brunch with her parents, but they bump into each other randomly at a frat party that Jesse gets dragged to by Nat (Zac Efron), one of those intuitive stoners who are so handy for screenwriters but so annoying in real life.
As the 35-year-old alum and the 19-year-old undergrad chat that night and the next day, they click, leading to a correspondence in which they hand-write letters to each other, loaded with observations about classical music that are so trite and corny that you keep waiting for the movie to call them out for it. But no, this is apparently how Radnor (who previously wrote and directed “happythankyoumoreplease”) thinks smart people talk about culture.
Zibby eventually talks Jesse into visiting again to court her -- he gets over his initial ambivalence by calculating that when he’s 87, she’ll be 71 -- but when life-experience differences like her enjoyment of crappy vampire fiction (as well as her virginity) pop up, do these two have a future together?
Their story, not to mention a subplot about a depressed undergrad (John Magaro) whom Jesse befriends, might feel more vital if everyone weren’t so damn nice. These characters are all blandly pleasant, with just one or two major personality traits apiece, that it’s hard to get wrapped up in what happens to them, particularly when Radnor telegraphs the movie’s resolution by casting a recognizable face in a role that seems, at first, to be unimportant to the plot.
We’re supposed to see Jesse as yet another man-child learning to grow up, but the character is so sketchily presented that none of that becomes clear until it’s specifically articulated by Allison Janney’s embittered poetry professor. She temporarily gives the movie some teeth after telling Jesse to put “some armor around his gooey heart,” but even this character feels TV-ready, the sort of snarky put-down machine who could be the second lead on any network comedy.
(And it’s not just the characters who are vague; you could build a drinking game out of all the times “Liberal Arts” references “Twilight” and “Infinite Jest” are made without coming out and saying “Twilight” or “Infinite Jest.”)
There’s a TV notion called “least objectionable programming,” where you schedule something that’s non-annoying enough to keep people from changing the channel; indeed, shows like “Wings” or “The Middle” last for years by merely keeping people tuned in between more successful programs.
Breezy and amiable, “Liberal Arts” is “Least Objectionable Programming: The Movie.” But you could get that at home.