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.