Writer, director and lead actor Josh Radnor plays Jesse, an emotionally stunted mid-thirties man who is finding life a little less than fulfilling. Invited to visit his old college by his soon to be retiring ex-professor, Jesse falls back in love with the twee and oh so perfect Ohio college, even resorting to rolling about on the grass within minutes of arriving there.
If there’s any comedic intention to earnest scenes such as Jesse rolling on the grass in the sunshine it’s of a tender and far too subtle nature to carry any real weight and there is certainly no edge or sense of awareness. Even when Jesse later appears to decide to hug a tree it is treated rather tenderly and even turns out to be something of a set up for a later romantic plot point.
This sort of soft and fuzzy approach typifies Liberal Arts and it is no surprise that when the ever so slightly kooky Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) enters the scene we are set for a well-meaning but ever so limp romantic entanglement. Sub-plots and side characters come and go, including a surprisingly amusing turn from Zac Efron and the introduction of a bitter professor played with vampy finesse by Allison Janney, but these side characters, and even to some extent Zibby, are mere ciphers placed to move the plot along in a perfunctory manner and/or to teach Jesse ‘important’ lessons.
Some sense that filmmaker Radnor is playing with formulas would be some sort of relief but dissapointingly, for a film so loaded with references to post-modern literature, and scenes in which characters use fiction to discuss what they themselves are actually thinking or feeling, Radnor, and the characters he draws, seem to be lacking any sense of self-awareness.
Broken apart and put under any sort of scrutiny Liberal Arts looks very much the failure but it is often actually a rather pleasant, if painfully innocuous, film. The performances are mostly excellent – Radnor is the weakest link – with Olsen, Janney, Efron and Richard Jenkins (as the retiring professor) all doing a lot with very little. The college campus is also, quite deliberately, sold very well by Radnor as a very delightful place to spend time, with eternal sunshine and charming uncluttered locations. But even with this Radnor still runs into a problem, as the campus sequences follow similarly lensed and romanticized shots of New York one doesn’t get the sense that this place is the utopia that Jessie views it as, it’s just another equally lovely place.
Crucially Liberal Arts is a film about the character of Jesse and his ‘struggles’ with life, most importantly how poorly he seems to be coping with “getting old”, and it is in this central character that the film falls down. There is so little meat to Jesse and his journey dramatically and any comedic beats within the film raise little more than a smirk. Liberal Arts is sweet and unassuming but ultimately far too insubstantial.