Taking all three jobs as writer/director/star, it shouldn't be surprising that Josh Radnor is way too kind with his 35-year-old character, Jesse, who falls for a college girl during a trip back to his Ohio alma mater. He's there to celebrate the retirement of his "second favorite professor" (Richard Jenkins); the first favorite is played by Allison Janney. Upping the talent ante even further is Martha Marcy May Marlene star Elizabeth Olsen as the crush object, Zibby, but Radnor/Jesse is concerned only with himself. The bookish Brooklynite needs to grow up, you see, to leave behind his collegiate obsessions (David Foster Wallace chief among them) and self-image. This means Yoda-esque counsel from a campus stoner (Zac Efron, way too broad) and an epistolary romance with Zibby, because Facebook and cell phones don't exist. There's even a suicidal bookworm who reminds Jesse exactly of himself at that age! (Double the Jesses, double the salvation?) Radnor, from TV's How I Met Your Mother, isn't entirely dismissive of those in Jesse's concentric orbit; but he gives each one of them a generous scene, then lets them spin away, forgotten. Liberal Arts is all about Jesse all of the time, but he's not flawed or neurotic enough to be genuinely interesting. The movie's funniest scene has him doing the numbers on a sheet of paper: 35 – 19 = 16 years of age difference. No way, dude! But then he varies the calculation: 50 – 34 doesn't sound so creepy! Woody Allen wouldn't even bother with the math. Behaving worse would've made Liberal Arts a better comedy.
The numbers don't work: Radnor and Olsen.
Opens Fri., Sept. 21 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Rated R. 98 minutes.