Directed by Josh Radnor
Now playing at the Charles Theatre
The strange thing about college campuses is that they're engineered to simulate home, and yet each element is uncomfortable enough to push you out into the real world when the time comes. The chairs, though cushioned, prevent most comfortable positions; roommates stand between you and romance; and the dining options leave you nourished but they're not particularly palatable. Despite this, there are some among us who just can't let go, and Josh Radnor's latest comedy-drama follows one such lost soul.
Two years after Happythankyoumoreplease, Radnor continues his study of not-quite-grown-ups, telling the story of Jesse (played by Radnor), a college admissions counselor who returns to his alma mater for the retirement party of a beloved professor (Richard Jenkins). There, he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a bright sophomore who immediately takes a liking to him, and the pair strikes up a tenuous courtship despite the many miles and years that separate the two.
On the whole, Liberal Arts moves calmly over tepid waters, charming in certain respects but lifeless on the whole. Bright spots include Olsen's performance, which simmers with the excitement that comes with youth and the frustration of being wise beyond her years. Sure, Zibby can wax poetic about Bach but she's still a teenager, and Olsen strikes just the right balance of smart and inexperienced. Another highlight is Radnor's take on Jesse, a bearded man-child (maybe man-teen is more appropriate) who is inherently likeable despite his budding romance with a girl nearly half his age. The chemistry between the two is wonderfully awkward and genuine, sparking some of the best scenes.
Unfortunately, the script never crackles with the same sort of energy brought by the actors. Jokes fall flat and a couple subplots feel stale and a little cheesy. Zac Efron shows up to play a bro-ish Zen master/deus ex machina, and while his performance brings about the film's few laugh-out-loud moments, his character seems placed purely for the sake of convenience. Though flawed, Liberal Arts is certainly a pleasant watch, buoyed by its cast. Don't expect a wild ride with this one, but for those of you looking to reminisce about college, the film could make for a nice stroll down memory lane.