“Liberal Arts” has many lessons, including one delivered by Zac Efron in what amounts to a kooky extended cameo as a campus visitor: “Fortune never smiles on those who say ‘No.’ ”
Add to that a drama major’s take on improv. Nineteen-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) explains, “I think I love how terrifying it is and how you have to say ‘Yes’ to everything.”
But should a college alum, Jesse (Josh Radnor), say “Yes” to Zibby’s openhearted advances despite their — gulp — 16-year age difference? An admissions counselor living in New York, Jesse had returned to campus to attend a retirement party for a favorite literature professor (Richard Jenkins) when he met the mature beyond her years Zibby.
Jenkins’ character, meanwhile, thought he couldn’t wait to leave teaching and tiresome faculty meetings but learns otherwise. After all, he feels like he’s 19. “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.”
“Liberal Arts,” filmed in part at photogenic Kenyon College in Ohio where Radnor studied, presents characters on campus who would rather be elsewhere and those banished by graduation or retirement who wish they could go back. And then there’s the Romantics professor (Allison Janney) who might be brittle and unhappy no matter where she lands.
There is nothing revolutionary in “Liberal Arts” although its dialogue has the ring of truth, wisdom or comic commentary. College is the “only time you get to sit around and read books all day and have great conversations,” Jesse says, although he also remembers thinking anything was possible in college and then being confronted by reality after graduation.
“Liberal Arts” also has its share of precious moments as when Zibby suggests she and Jesse hug or that he write her an old-fashioned letter. The character of Mr. Efron exists to dispense a few words of wisdom or serve as inadvertent matchmaker (or audience magnet).
Radnor, who also wrote and directed the movie but may best be recognized for CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother,” capably taps into feelings about freedom or imprisonment in college and life after. And the guy’s got guts — the cast here includes Elizabeth Reaser who plays Esme Cullen in the “Twilight” franchise, even as Jesse calls the first book in the vampire series “the worst book ever written in English.”
As Zibby counters: “These books make people happy.” And so, in its modest way, may “Liberal Arts.”