Stalled out at 35, Jesse, a Brooklynite, finds himself drawn back to his Ohio college because of a 19-year-old student Elizabeth, known as "Zibby" (Elizabeth Olsen) whom he encounters on a revisit.
Director/star Josh Radnor defuses the cradle-robbing vibe by facing it straight on, with Jesse doing a page of calculations about the differences in their ages. Liberal Arts does a similar set of calculations concerning the places where this would-be couple harmonize and clash: they both love classical music, but he hates her choice of reading material (the Twilight novels).
At heart, Liberal Arts is a green, tender film, and the excessive tenderness is the reason it falls apart in the last half hour. And like more than a few college nostalgia films, this one has a notable anti-intellectual streak. Alison Janney, who makes a smokey, beyond-bitter entrance as a lit prof Jesse had a crush on in the 1990s, is dreamy at first. But she's left too underwritten to explain her disappointments: "life happened—that's all you're going to get."
Similarly, the love letters between Zibby and Jesse are too vapid; you wish they'd taken a chance on getting a little loftier, even at the risk of the audience not understanding the references. More specifically, literary writing here would also convince us that this couple "with Pennsylvania between them" are having a meeting of true minds, since the chemistry between them isn't visible. College may be a time for the lust for learning, but it isn't just learning that gets lusted after. More pluses and minuses: the always excellent Richard Jenkins as a professor with a love-hate relationship to teaching Zac Efron as an annoying holy campus fool in a Peruvian yarn hat.
NR; 97 min.