Liberal Arts is about multiple generations of strong, attractive women united in inexplicably finding writer-director Josh Radnor sexually irresistible, perhaps due to his sorrowful visage and air of vague existential ennui. His fans range from aggressive, tart-tongued professor Allison Janney to precocious 19-year-old college student Elizabeth Olsen. Radnor’s relationship with Olsen plays like a blurry, fumbling cover of the relationship between Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, while the film’s trembling sincerity and preciousness betray the debt Radnor still owes to the oeuvre of Zach Braff, another sitcom star turned sad-sack independent auteur.
Radnor stars in his second directorial effort as a 35-year-old who never really left the soul-searching of college behind, as evidenced by his job as a college-admissions counselor. Following a breakup, the directionless, emotionally stunted Radnor returns to his alma mater for the retirement party of a beloved professor (Richard Jenkins) and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Olsen that threatens to turn into something more.
In Liberal Arts, Radnor and Olsen woo each other via a series of twee letters because Olsen, being a free-spirited waif too whimsical and pure for these technology-crazed times, favors old-fashioned pen-and-ink letters over newfangled abominations like email. It’s a bibliophile romance of the most cloying, insufferable variety even before Olsen has Radnor read Twilight, whereupon the film favors audiences with the first-ever montage of a middle-aged man reading a Stephenie Meyer novel in a series of picturesque collegiate settings. Liberal Arts fails to make glum stasis compelling, especially via Radnor’s morose lead performance; it doesn’t help that Jenkins and Janney’s prickly, agreeably grown-up turns make Radnor look like even more of a blurry, adolescent blob of unmerited self-pity by comparison. Liberal Arts has the tony look and feel of a vintage Woody Allen movie, but the sophistication is all surface-level. Radnor will never ascend to Allen’s rarified realm, but judging by his forgettable first two features, he could give Ed Burns competition.