Jesse Fischer (Radnor) is a 35-year-old college admissions officer in New York City who loves literature and language, but is newly single and dissatisfied with his life and career. He believes that the happiest time of his life was the years at his unnamed Ohio liberal arts college, where he could study poetry uninterrupted, surrounded by others like him. Peter Holberg (Jenkins), his former English professor, invites Jesse back to the college to attend Peter's retirement ceremony. Jesse meets 19-year-old Zibby (Olsen), a sophomore studying drama and the daughter of Peter's friends.
After the retirement dinner, Jesse stumbles upon a dorm party where he runs into Zibby. They agree to have coffee together the next day. He spends the afternoon with Zibby, and they walk around the campus discussing life, books, and music. He also encounters his old romantics teacher, Judith Fairfield (Janney)—a woman he has long admired—and meets the eccentric Nat (Efron) and Dean (Magaro), a brilliant but depressed student who, like Jesse, always carries a book with him. Before Jesse leaves, Zibby asks to stay in touch; they become pen pals and become closer via handwritten letters. Meanwhile, Peter feels lost in retirement, and goes to the dean to ask for his job back. The dean replies that the faculty have already hired his replacement, and Peter causes a scene in the dean's office.
Zibby invites Jesse back to campus, hinting that she has feelings for him. Jesse has concerns about the 16-year age gap, but agrees. When Peter sees them together, however, he warns Jesse about living in the past. Zibby confesses her feelings to Jesse and asks him to sleep with her; he agrees, but changes his mind after she admits that she is a virgin. Zibby is insulted and hurt, asks him to leave. Jesse goes to a bar where he meets Fairfield again. They have a one-night stand, but afterward she tells him to grow up and kicks him out. Meanwhile, Zibby goes to a party and kisses a classmate. Jesse leaves without seeing Zibby again, but says goodbye to Peter.
Jesse returns to New York and, some months later, writes to Zibby again. He apologizes for hurting her, says that he misses her and credits her for helping him to grow. He meets and starts dating Ana (Reaser), a bookseller his own age with a similar love for books. After Jesse helps avert Dean's suicide by overdose, he advises the young man to stop hiding from life within books. Jesse goes to see Zibby and apologizes to her again. She says that she had hoped to take a shortcut to adulthood through a relationship with Jesse, and that she understands that what he did was the right thing. Jesse goes back home and renews his correspondence with Zibby. The film ends with Jesse seemingly happy with the idea of growing old with Ana.Josh Radnor as Jesse Fisher
Elizabeth Olsen as Elizabeth "Zibby"
Richard Jenkins as Professor Peter Hoberg
Allison Janney as Professor Judith Fairfield
John Magaro as Dean
Elizabeth Reaser as Ana
Kate Burton as Susan
Robert Desiderio as David
Zac Efron as Nat
Gregg Edelman as Robert
The majority of scenes were filmed at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Kenyon is the real life alma mater of both Radnor and co-star Allison Janney.
Liberal Arts received generally positive reviews and has a rating of 70% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 104 reviews with an average score of 6.6 out of 10. The consensus states: "While it's hard not to wish it had a little more bite, Liberal Arts ultimately succeeds as a good-natured -- and surprisingly clever -- look at the addictive pull of nostalgia for our youth." The film also has a score of 55 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 24 reviews, indicating "Mixed or average reviews".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 3 and a half out of 4 stars and stated in his review:
is an almost unreasonable pleasure about a jaded New Yorker who returns to his alma mater in Ohio and finds that his heart would like to stay there. It's the kind of film that appeals powerfully to me; to others, maybe not so much.
There is a part of me that will forever want to be walking under autumn leaves, carrying a briefcase containing the works of Shakespeare and Yeats and a portable chess set. I will pass an old tree under which once on a summer night I lay on the grass with a fragrant young woman and we quoted e.e. cummings back and forth. There is a word to explain why this particular film so appealed to me. Reader, that word is "escapism." If you understand why I used the word "reader" in just that way, you are possibly an ideal viewer for this movie."