‘Liberal Arts’ an indie romance for bookworms

Courtesy PhotoMeeting of minds: Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor star in “Liberal Arts.”

Courtesy PhotoMeeting of minds: Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor star in “Liberal Arts.”

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.

artsElizabeth OlsenJosh RadnorMoviesRichard Jenkins

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

(Examiner file photo)
Charter amendment effort would replace elected school board with appointed body

Critics of the San Francisco Unified School District board on Monday formally… Continue reading

Jill Bonny, owner of Studio Kazoku tattoo parlor in the Haight, tattoos client Lam Vo on Friday, March 5, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
No one was fighting for tattoo artists, so they started advocating for themselves

Jill Bonny has been tattooing in the Bay Area since 2000. Four… Continue reading

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted changes to The City's streets including Slow Streets closures to increase open space access and the Shared Spaces program, which allows businesses to use public right-of-ways for dining, retail and services. (Examiner illustration)
COVID is reshaping the streets of San Francisco

Walk down Page Street, which is closed to thru-traffic, and you might… Continue reading

Stanford’s Ashten Prechtel shoots a layup as three Oregon State defenders look on during a Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament semifinal game on Friday, March 5, 2021, at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas. Bryan Steffy/Pac-12 Pool Photo
No. 4 Stanford women cruise to Pac-12 Tournament title

Kiana Williams is heating up just in time to head home. The… Continue reading

At a rally in February, Monthanus Ratanapakdee, left, and Eric Lawson remember Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who died after he was pushed to the pavement in San Francisco. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Examiner file photo)
The criminal justice system can’t fix what’s wrong in our community

My 87-year-old mother walks gingerly, slowly, deliberately, one step in front of… Continue reading

Most Read