This began as a Letterboxd review, so the tone is more conversational and less formal than my standard stuff these days.
You know, the first time I saw Liberal Arts I thought it was middling at best, but I think I was blinded by my desperation to see Elizabeth Olsen be in something good for once after a prolonged post-Marta Marcy May Marlene drought (that drought has continued, by the way, as she is consistently saddled with boring, do-nothing characters even when the movie is decent like Kill Your Darlings or Godzilla). I say that because on a second viewing thanks to its inevitable release on Netflix instant (this thing had Netflix instant written all over it, just a matter of when they would add it), I could barely get through it without my brain leaking out my ears.
Josh Radnor is not a writer. I have to assume this based on the fact that he wrote this cliched, tone deaf, horribly mawkish screenplay with boring plotting and terrible dialogue. There is a moment in the early second act where Jesse (Radnor) and Zibby (Olsen in full manic pixie dream girl mode, and yes, she goes by Zibby instead of Liz or Elizabeth because that makes her quirky or something) exchange letters that include such chestnuts as "I was listening to the overture and as the music began to swell I suddenly realized that: I had hands. And legs, and a torso, and that I was surrounded by people and cars." That's played as serious, no matter how much of a parody of Noah Baumbach it might sound. And that's just the half of it.
It's a comedy, sure (a rom-com, really), but it's also suffocatingly self-serious, designed to be some existential look at post-college malaise and what can happen when that malaise and sense of nostalgia stretches into your 30's (again with the Baumbach). As the sort of person who was a philosophy major in college, I can relate to some of the sepia-toned nostalgia Jesse has for his time in school. He has a conversation with a sullen depressed loner he befriends where he tries to explain why he loved college so much, and his reasons are for the most part my reasons. But on the screen, after 50 minutes of the film pushing its ideas and its ideology so very hard in the face of everyone who will listen, it rings hollow and staged and forced and everything else that's bad about films that think they're about something important instead of simply being about something important.
There's some good, technically. Richard Jenkins is always dependable on screen, and the same can be said for his performance here. Zac Efron is actually the standout, playing a weird sort of Greek chorus of one in a knit hat who shows up artificially to move the plot along, but he shows some of the spark that occasionally popped up in Neighbors that indicates he might have a little more under the hood than those High School Musical movies may have indicated. Allison Janney has what is essentially an extended cameo as a professor-turned-cougar that is all platitude, but she has fun with it to the best of her abilities. Olsen continues to show the sort of spark that is wasted in films like Oldboy (here's hoping Joss Whedon can do something worthwhile with her in Avengers 2), but she's a plot device instead of a character, existing to make Jesse feel conflicted about falling for a teenager so he can grow up and embrace his life away from the college he believes defines him. It's not a bad message on its face, but it sure is badly presented.
Liberal Arts is more of a diorama than a film. All of its characters are bundles of cliches and baldly sketched ideas, plot devices with lips. Jesse is supposed to be a boob, and Radnor certainly succeeds in making him one, but not in the way he planned. Everything that comes out of his mouth is designed to sound romantic, either literally with Zibby or classically with literature and music, but it's a hollow romance, staged and stiff and pretentious. His blowhardiness part of the plot, but Radnor still gives his character too much of the benefit of the doubt. He does not let Jesse or any of the other characters fully embrace the concept of moving on, still defaulting to that wistful view of college life even as Jesse moves on.
There's a section of the second act that has to do with Jesse reading Twilight and railing on how bad it is to Zibby, turning into a reductive conversation about the relative merits of pop culture (and the cringey line "It's not Tolstoy but it's not television," which plays at the lowest common denominator of literary snobs). The grand irony is that Liberal Arts is, for all intents and purposes, the Twilight of post-college malaise movies. It has no ideas of its own, no voice of its own. What ideas it does have are simplistic and reductive. It is disposable claptrap disguised as something sincere and profound. It is everything that is wrong with indie movies. It is (to borrow a phrase) the opposite of Batman.