Uneven and overly sunny it may be, but as literary love fuses with romantic love at an idyllic college, writer-director-actor Josh Radnor achieves nice-little-movie status and tickles the bookworm heart in his dramedy “Liberal Arts.”
Echoing his filmmaking debut “Happythankyoumoreplease,” Radnor deals with the trials of entering adulthood.
Combining arrested development, light romance and back-to-school themes, the film suggests a mild but worthy mix of Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, Eric Rohmer, “Before Sunrise” and Radnor’s own brand of wit-streaked good-heartedness.
Radnor plays Jesse, an uninspired New York admissions counselor who travels to his beloved Ohio alma mater for the retirement party of literature professor Peter (Richard Jenkins).
He meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a book-loving, buoyantly idealistic 19-year-old sophomore who reminds him of his former self. Zibby sees in Jesse the life experience she desires. They hit it off.
After Jesse returns home, the two correspond via handwritten letters, and, when Zibby states her wish to date him, Jesse rushes back. They walk, talk and click over books and arts.
But the 16-year gap in their ages troubles Jesse. Is he in love with Zibby or with the college world she represents?
The movie isn’t of the caliber of the one-liner fests and talky romances by the aforementioned notables. Radnor includes hackneyed devices such as voice-over readings of the pair’s letters.
Sometimes he overdoes the indie quirkiness. A subplot involving a depressed bookworm (John Magaro) unfolds predictably. A kooky philosopher (Zac Efron) gets tiresome.
As an actor, Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) is believable but bland in a role that needs to convey conflict and passion.
Yet the pluses outweigh the drawbacks. The movie congeals as an entertaining back-to-college ride, an appealing love story and a celebration of books that is so goopily old-fashioned that it might prompt you to curl up with a good volume.
Radnor injects enough bite to offset his weakness for the rosy, and the film succeeds as a seriocomic look at 30-somethings living in times that offer few incentives to grow up.
Chuckle material includes a scene in which Jesse does the math: When he was Zibby’s age, Zibby was, yikes, 3; when he’s 87, she’ll be, whew, a palatable 71.
Olsen sparkles. Mixing maturity and innocence, she is luminously credible and radiates an intelligence rarely allowed in young romantic heroines.
As the retiring professor terrified of a life without the classroom, Jenkins, too, shines, and Allison Janney is so darkly amusing that you wonder if she accidentally stumbled in from a Todd Solondz set. Her portrayal of possibly the world’s most unromantic romantics instructor is unforgettable.