Liberal Arts is a light and lively comedy of manners about college, literature and a midlife crisis that hits earlier than expected.
The bookish group at the heart of this talky film — Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Zac Efron and Allison Janney — is having such a grand time trading tart exchanges that their mood proves infectious. The sparring helps offset some of the contrivances that make Liberal Arts less buttoned up than it should be.
Radnor, who wrote and directed the film, plays Jesse, 35, a university admissions counselor in New York who is unable to let go of a lingering nostalgia for his Midwest college days. That's clear in the clever opening as he pitches the many virtues of a liberal arts education to some faceless student who doesn't begin to share his enthusiasm.
But it does put Jesse in the right state of mind to accept an invitation to a retirement dinner for one of his favorite English professors (Jenkins).
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The visit allows Jesse to give into, and reflect on, all those old feelings — not of the frat-boy party type but the coffeehouse debates over favorite authors. It becomes a crafty way to dissect the way in which nostalgia can trump the harder truths of the past. When Jesse bumps into a professor (Janney) and begins gushing about her class on the Romantics, he barely merits an arched brow.
The film shifts from fond memories to a more thorny present when Jesse meets a fetching young student, Zibby (Olsen), who also loves the Romantics. There is an undeniable something between them. Just what that something is, or can become, remains uncertain.
When Jesse returns to New York, he and Zibby begin an old-fashioned correspondence: handwritten letters sent via U.S. mail. It's a lot of lovely getting-to-know-you prose and an occasion for nice montages. After a time, she wants the gentleman to actually call, and Jesse drives back to Ohio for a date. So begins the conspiracy of events that will force Zibby and Jesse to think about growing up before getting together.
Since their flirtation is forcing the coming-of-age issues, there should be a visible attraction. But the filmmaker does a better job drawing out the couple's differences than igniting a spark. When they go back to Zibby's dorm room to "make out," its priceless to watch Jesse's discomfort as it dawns on him just how absurd the situation is.
Olsen continues to show that her breakthrough in Martha Marcy May Marlene was not a fluke. She has a gift for finding the right note for her characters, and she's made Zibby just innocent enough and astute enough to be a compelling complicating factor. Janney and Jenkins never hit a false note.
This is the second film by Radnor (best known for playing Ted in TV's How I Met Your Mother), and it relies on the same gentle humor to carry it that made his Happythankyoumoreplease such a festival favorite in 2010. It's more of a nudge in the ribs than the biting style of humor that has come to dominate today's comedies and makes for a nice change.