The film is the second feature from writer / director / actor / superhero Josh Radnor. Apparently he has a big role in popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which I've seen approximately 90 seconds of in my entire life so I can't really comment on that little factoid in any more depth. Anyway, here Radnor plays Jesse: a guidance counselor slowly approaching middle age. When he returns to his old Alma Mater for the retirement party of his old professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), he meets young, feisty Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). He also meets depressed introvert Dean (John Magaro), who will inevitably need some inspiration. Oh, and Zac Efron as a philosophical surfer hippie, for some reason. Anyway, Jesse falls for Zibby, and the two begin vomitous written correspondence once Jesse reluctantly returns to the drabness of the city. Will this young girl - so full of life! - be the thing that will pull Jesse out of his pre mid life crisis slump?
Spoiler! 'No' is the answer, because that's the sort of message even Woody Allen barely got away with in Manhattan, and has become sort of creepy given Allen's subsequent films and private shenanigans. Alas we have to spend an hour and a half finding out that Jesse will ultimately meet a more age appropriate beau (pay attention to that woman in the bookshop, intrepid viewers!). During those ninety-odd minutes, Radnor attempts to convince us that his film is full of insight and worthiness. Characters cheesily bond over classical music. David Foster Wallace novels are praised in vague generalities, while teen vampire novels are harshly critiqued (oddly - and distractingly - book names are never given despite the fact they're clearly what the characters are talking about). Life lessons are learned, and lives are literally saved by Jesse - our dashingly irritating hero.
At its worst, Liberal Arts is insufferably twee. The extended letter writing montage is a low point - so stupid, so unrealistic and - yes! - so fucking pretentious that eyes won't cease rolling throughout. Lessons are dispensed through crude, unconvincing monologues and dialogues - the sort of film where it takes excessive contrivances and chance meetings for characters to realise the bleeding obvious. There's no insight or intelligence - these people may sound like they know what they're talking about, but they really don't. For a film set in the world of academia and with extended conversations about literary icons, it's frustratingly dumb. Much of the film's attempts at humour and drama fall flat through bland directing, weird pauses or cringey writing.
What's even more maddening is that the film oftentimes suggests it could be a harmless, second-rate Woody Allen knock-off that at the very least would pass the time without great offense being caused to its unsuspecting audience. Between all the bullshit, condescending philosophising there are genuinely funny moments - a silent scene where Jesse logically examines the pros and cons of his relationship with Zibby is particularly amusing. The cast are talented, but wasted. Richard Jenkins has little to work with, but is still a welcome screen presence. Alison Janney is one-dimensional in a very small role as an apathetic and cruel professor. Olsen - who was so electrifying in the wonderful Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene - is the archetypical manic pixie dream girl. She gives it socks, and she's suitably charming, but the script ensures the character never convinces.
Liberal Arts is a hollow, annoying film that deludedly believes it's something grander and worthier than it ever had the potential to be. Populated by stereotypes, the narrative's predictability ensures that at its very best it's merely mildly engaging. At its worst, it's embarrassing and insulting - a waste of talent and our time. Infinite Jest - the book several characters in this film repeatedly yet unconvincingly reference because they believe it's hip to do so - is populated by individuals endlessly seeking amusement and distraction. It's all centred around the search for a videotape so entertaining it causes its viewer to expire in a state of catatonic euphoria. Alas, they'd instead be bored to death by the pretentious Liberal Arts.