Josh Radnor plays 35-year-old Jesse, a school admissions officer who knows only too well that he is stuck in a rut. Yet another relationship has ended in enmity and his job is far from what he really wants to be doing. He reads a lot as a form of escape. One of his old university tutors (Richard Jenkins) invites him back to school to talk about his professor at his retirement ceremony. While there, Jesse regresses back to student life and quickly develops a relationship with 19-year-old Zibby (since Elizabeth is too mundane), played by Elizabeth Olsen.
Radnor takes aging and knowledge as his subjects and he waxes lyrical about the importance of both, especially in terms of university. The university experience is treated with such sentimentality that Liberal Arts becomes a film hopelessly unrealistic. Everyone is there to be inspired and barely anyone drinks or acts like an idiot. Zibby is full of dumb rhetoric and is typically quirky. The unhappy outsider is recognised in the figure of Dean (John Magaro), though the dark side of the university experience is touched on only intermittently and often unconvincingly, as if the film itself is terrified of having it’s little bubble burst. The main problem with Liberal Arts is that it is such a tame and flimsy film that even an ounce of reality or common sense would threaten to destroy the whole wretchedly sensitive and inoffensive thing.
Practically anything that the film says, any point it makes, is directly contradicted by something either within the film itself or from the viewer’s own experience. Both Richard Jenkins and Josh Radnor, or should that be Professor Peter Hoberg and Jesse, have obvious problems with aging and both associate the university itself with some sort of life-preserving quality. Zibby is a young student who desperately wants to grow up and be taken seriously, although a lot of her prattle would be laughed out of most universities. In the end, Hoberg and Jesse learn the error of their ways and accept the aging is inevitable and not necessarily the end. Meanwhile, Zibby learns to slow down and act her age, encapsulated awkwardly by her receiving a gift of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. There’s even a lovely climatic scene in which Jesse and Ana (Elizabeth Reaser) talk about how they can’t wait to get old, as if the direct opposite of mourning the end of youth is an advance in itself. If this bit moves you, then what about cramps, debilitating illnesses and increasing obsolescence and irrelevance in society and the media. Basically, Jesse is trading one unrealistic view of aging with another.
Ultimately, it becomes clear that what the film really has to say is very little indeed, especially since older people, older women to be more precise, in the film are treated with outright contempt. Allison Janney plays a Romantics lecturer who has aged into a deep cynicism, which can only briefly be lifted by vampiric and unfulfilling sex with much younger people. And the film has absolutely no time for Zibby’s middle-class but fundamentally decent at heart mother just because she cannot understand her daughter’s terribly inane pop-philosophy claptrap about improvisation as a lifestyle. We are encouraged to laugh, but in the very next scene the film feels the need to explain Zibby’s mindless worldview to us in more detail so that we get it too and can, hence, be in on the joke. The film fails to recognise that if Zibby’s mother had refused to pick up the cheque for Zibby’s arty education, Zibby would not be able to talk down to her parents quite so freely.
Not an entire waste of precious and ever-decreasing time, the film does have a few moments that rise above the entirely dismissible. Zac Efron is fun in a cameo, though by the time Jesse discovers that there is wisdom behind Efron’s own brand of prattle it becomes difficult to take. The film’s fondness for classical music and reading is a nice touch since so much of Western culture nowadays celebrates witlessness and materialism, though the sequence in which Jesse gains an appreciation for classical music is oddly artless. There is a good sequence, which takes a dig at the Twilight books, though the film is not brave enough even to name them outright.
Liberal Arts is almost excessively tame, too such an extent that it does not even conclude with a genuine point. The film is devoid of any real opinions or worldview as if it is too afraid to have people disagree with it. It is ultimately a confused and meaningless film, which celebrates knowledge but begins with the quote “he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”, which believes in love but never shows it to be fulfilling, which recommends classical music but prefers typical indie-twangings for the score, which suggests that people who read Twilight are slumming it intellectually yet recommends potboiler nonsense Dracula as a real vampire novel presumably just because it is older. It not only does not have the courage of its convictions, it does not have any convictions.