A movie with a big happy face, “Liberal Arts” sees actor-writer-director Josh Radnor leaning on the sitcom-inflected tendencies that typified his debut, “Happythankyoumoreplease.” Adding an aspect of sylvan academia to the first film’s Gotham setting, Radnor plays a thirtysomething school admissions adviser ready for change, which he finds on a trip back to his alma mater. Containing the requisite number of audience-pleasing scenes that will make this a hot Sundance bidding item with indie-centric distribs, the pic will at least secure Radnor’s next multihyphenate project.
Radnor’s writing is very aware of its audience — how long it’s willing to wait between laughs, how to bolster the comedy with just enough serious incidents and lines, and how to keep things breezy and geared toward a “life is wonderful” conclusion. This makes the film feel perilously close to widescreen sitcom, as do montages of New York set to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.
Jesse (Radnor) gets a chance to flee the big city when he receives an invite from his favorite professor at Ohio’s Kenyon College, Peter (Richard Jenkins), to attend his retirement dinner. Peter’s friends soon introduce Jesse to their 19-year-old daughter, Elizabeth — nicknamed Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) — who’s attending Kenyon and specializing in improv theater. Jesse is struck by Zibby’s take on improv, in which a performer must always say “yes” to a suggestion.
Through a series of scenes, including Peter’s pathetic retirement party and Jesse’s unlikely encounters with manic-depressive intellectual Dean (John Magaro) and painfully kooky Nat (Zac Efron), a blissful slacker full of aphorisms, “Liberal Arts” draws a slick, simplistic overview of college life, to which Jesse feels nostalgically drawn. He also feels he should be over it, but before he heads back to New York, Zibby sends him off with a CD of her favorite classical music and an agreement to send handwritten letters to each other.
The letters are too self-consciously literary by half, flirting with romance despite their 16-year age difference, but they’re enough to send Jesse back to Kenyon, where he discovers via alluring English prof Judith (Allison Janney), whose Brit romance class wowed Jesse in college, that he has other amorous options. In easily the film’s best scene, he also discovers his former professor’s dark philosophical secret.
A pointless spat between Jesse and Zibby about her love of “Twilight”-type vampire novels makes the pic’s extended midsection feel flabby, and it doesn’t help that Zibby’s character is the pic’s most problematic. The central narrative needs Zibby to feel, look and sound 19, but Olsen, a very mature 22, seems closer to a woman in her mid-20s, which makes it quite a stretch to believe that Zibby is as inexperienced as she claims.
Zibby’s passion for improv is never once seen onscreen, robbing the film of natural comic material, but then again, nothing in this careful entertainment is given over to improvisation or impulse. Janney and Jenkins inject a human, smart sensibility, while Efron is an annoyance, and Magaro tends to be actorish.
The slick production package is led by excessively bright lensing by Seamus Tierney, who even uses strong lights to pretty up nighttime scenes. Classical music cues, including from Monteverdi, are meant to send out intellectual vibes.