In "Liberal Arts", director Radnor plays an NYC college adviser who returns to his Ohio college to fete a retiring professor. While there, he gets lost in nostalgia for his youth and meets a free-spirited ingénue, Zibby (Olsen), who (surprise!) teaches him lessons about life and growing up. Such ruminations on the past can work, but they need to be less pretentious and contain less navel gazing than this.
It’s hard to avoid comparisons to Zach Braff’s superior "Garden State," because both involve TV stars stretching into film and center on hipsters returning home and finding their lives changed by a wildly self-aware bohemian girl. But while Braff’s film toed the line between affecting and affected, Radnor’s is clumsy and obvious. He mistakes platitudes for depth ("Anyplace you don’t leave is a prison"), beats you over the head with "symbolism" (caterpillars blossom into butterflies even against their will!), and telegraphs every plot point ahead essentially from the set-up-you know who he’s going to bed, who he’s going to hurt, and who he’s going to end up with before he speaks to any of them.
Radnor is innocuous as a lead, so he’s smartly surrounded himself by an ace supporting cast. Jennings and Janney bring a cool gravity; Olsen continues her run of layered performances (even in a role this cliché); and Reaser is as charming as ever. Only Efron is unconvincing as a sober surfer dude type.
"Liberal Arts" isn’t terrible, it’s just terribly banal.
Extras: Deleted scenes, a featurette, commentary, and the trailer.