By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
Only the aggravatingly unwatchable “Rock of Ages” keeps the excruciatingly irritating “Liberal Arts” from being the worst movie I’ve seen so far this year. The former is a misbegotten musical that’s campily moronic instead of cleverly ironic. The latter is an embarrassingly stupid male wish fantasy masquerading as a sensitive mid-life memoir.
“Liberal Arts” writer/director Josh Radnor of TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” stars as 35-year-old New Yorker Jesse Fisher, a lifelessly bland bore whose girlfriend has just moved out. He returns to his Ohio alma mater to attend a retirement event for a former favorite professor (Richard Jenkins, one of two good actors who should be ashamed to be seen here). While there, Jesse is smitten by mature-for-her-age 19-year-old freshman Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen, another normally respectable thespian guilty of making a baffling career move).
Bearded Jesse’s most common expression is a blankly mindless, frequently seen-on-TV stare (think David Schwimmer of “Friends” at his most clueless). But Zibby somehow finds him sufficiently fascinating to begin a long-distance correspondence involving handwritten letters. As if that’s not precious enough, their missives extol the transcendent joys of classical music selections Zibby has burned onto a mix CD for Jesse. Sickeningly sappy slo-mo montages accompany voiceover readings of those horribly overwritten paeans. “I worry that my nervous system is ill-equipped to contain such an immensity of feeling,” Jesse swoons. “Will this music be the death of me?” If only.
Jesse later accepts Zibby’s invitation to make a return visit to her dorm room, but gets skittish about sealing the deal because of their age difference. Instead, he dithers like a dopey 35-going-on-13 sitcom-stereotype “nice guy.” His type is rightfully denigrated by a coldly unsentimental cougar named Professor Fairfield (Allison Janney) as “effete, overarticulate man-boys who never learned to toughen up.”
In other words, Jesse is such an unexcitingly asexual non-entity that women are unlikely to regard him as a credible romantic lead. At the same time, men will be disgusted by Jesse’s indecisive timidity, unrealistically cornball morality and off-putting intellectual arrogance.
The movie also features some horrendous plotting. Mocked for saying she enjoyed a “Twilight”-type novel, Zibby tells Jesse he shouldn’t criticize something he hasn’t read. Jesse immediately exits her room with the book to waste untold hours reading it from cover to cover, all so he can announce with authority later that it is “the worst book ever written in English.” That’s right: A 35-year-old man who has driven from New York to Ohio (he eccentrically hates flying) to see an obviously horny teenager can’t think of a better way to use his time than reading a long book that he expects to hate.
Jenkins’ crotchety Professor Hoberg utters supposedly pithy pearls such as “since I was 19, I’ve never felt like I wasn’t 19,” but a subplot about him trying to hang onto his job adds nothing to the story. A thread about a misunderstood student (John Magaro) who overdoses on his mood-controlling meds is shamelessly contrived. And a scene between Jesse and the bitchily unsentimental Professor Fairfield plays like a fourth-rate homage to a tonally identical one in “The Graduate.”
The movie’s worst supporting character by far, however, is an annoyingly spacey mystic named Nat (Zac Efron). The knit-cap-wearing modern-day hippie is always hanging out on campus when Jesse needs some cosmic advice along the lines of “be love, man—be love!”
It’s Jesse who is the most consistently unbelievable cast member, however. There’s something insulting, if not outright creepy, about actor/writer/director Radnor’s premise that such a self-righteous mid-30s dullard would be irresistible to a barely legal co-ed. Jesse manages to become even more obnoxious when his low-key neediness gives way to love-struck windbaggery. “You were right about the Mozart piece,” he writes to Zibby. “It somehow made everyone in New York look like a viable romantic partner.” How…emetic.
Even something as trivial as Jesse’s tacky habit of wearing white T-shirts under everything from dress shirts to polos is enough to inspire a kind of low-grade loathing for the guy. The idea that a precocious 19-year-old blond would eagerly invite this deadwood doofus to be her “gentleman caller” will give false hope to the world’s dorks, dweebs and drips.
The positive-minded Zibby at one point tells Jesse that he should “talk about the things you love, and keep quiet about what you don’t.” The producers of this dim-witted dud are likely to wish movie reviewers everywhere had taken her advice.