Writer/director/actor Josh Radnor brings an authentic wistfulness and appealing warmth to “Liberal Arts,” his well-crafted sophomore film.
Best known for his lead role in the popular sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” Radnor brings his avid love for literature as well as relatable misgivings about growing up and old to his witty comedy of manners. He stars as Jesse Fisher, a 35-year-old admissions officer at a New York university who always has his nose in a book and slightly out of joint.
Discontented with “the real world,” he eagerly accepts an invitation to return to his picturesque alma mater in Ohio for the retirement dinner of his favorite professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins).
His joy at revisiting the sun-dappled campus gets a boost when he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the smart, spontaneous and mature-beyond-her-years daughter of Hoberg's best friends. Bonding over mutual interests, Jesse and the 19-year-old sophomore become pen pals, and their old-fashioned pen-and-paper exchanges open up the potential for a romantic relationship.
But their 16-year age difference, and the potential consequences that go with it, forces Jesse to finally figure out what he wants out of life.
The dialogue is uncommonly well-honed, particularly when Jesse and Zibby argue good taste vs. mindless escapism over a series of vampire novels that could only be the “Twilight” books. But the fledgling helmer also draws uniformly robust performances out of his cast, including Allison Janney as a prickly literature professor, Zac Efron as a hippy-dippy campus visitor and, ironically, “Twilight” actress Elizabeth Reaser as a fetching book shop owner.
Extras: Deleted scenes, commentary and a frustratingly short behind-the-scenes featurette.
— Brandy McDonnell