The fantasy may have its appeal but it’s also becoming pathetic. Jesse’s former poetry professor Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney, The Help) tells him as much in a very pointed rant when she says, "All these effete over-articulate manboys who never learn to toughen up – don’t be one of them. Go work with your hands. Build something. Punch someone in the face." Admonition to violence aside, it’s the best advice Jesse gets. Unfortunately the film views Judith as cold and heartless, so the one bit of guidance Jesse should heed is summarily dismissed as the bitterness of an aging spinster.

Fortunately the film’s greatest strength is Olsen’s performance as Zibby. She elevates every conventional trait of the MPDG with a spontaneity, sincerity, and complexity not inherent to the archetype. As Jesse, Radnor’s sitcom roots peek through in the way he plays the material. To his credit, his acting is more underplayed than on TV, and his natural awe-shucks charisma makes up for a lot.

Most supporting characters in Liberal Arts exist to fill a purpose rather than be people. Nat (Zac Efron, The Lucky One) is a caricatured stoner who pops up to elicit laughs or provide Jesse an enlightening metaphor. Dean (John Magaro, The Life Before Her Eyes) is simply a younger version of Jesse who Jesse can cathartically mentor. Elizabeth Reaser (The Twilight Saga) has the most thankless role of all as a librarian who pines for Jesse as he remains oblivious to her affections.

It’s the two vets, Janney and Richard Jenkins (Step Brothers) as Professor Hoberg that stand out (along with Olsen). Hoberg adds a particularly interesting element: for as little of a catalyst as he is for Jesse, a good deal of time is spent with him and his own personal trial. Jenkins’ performance is so rich and the arc so well-conceived that Hoberg almost feels like a character from a different movie (one that Radnor would do well to try his hand at in order to stretch himself as a filmmaker).

As indies go, Liberal Arts is a softball right down the middle. For all the nitpicks, it’s saved by an undeniable charm. Calling a movie "casually comfortable" may sound like a backhanded compliment – and to be honest, it is – but it’s a sincere one.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity: Two instances of the Lord’s name taken in vain. One use of the “D” word slang for a man’s genitals, as well as the “P” word for a woman’s.
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: A little bit of casual drinking but no drunkenness. A woman smokes in one scene.
  • Sex/Nudity: Brief passionate kissing. Talk of possibly having sex. A student talks about wanting to lose her virginity. The sound of a woman achieving orgasm. A couple talks after having had sex.

Publication date: September 14, 2012