Rose-colored return to the past
Returning to one's alma mater has a way of prompting temporary amnesia. Memories of bad grades and brutal hangovers disappear as soon as the lush landscaping comes into view, beckoning visitors to lie down and relax with a good book under the warm sun. Ah, when life was simple.
That kind of idyll-induced brain lapse fuels writer-director-actor Josh Radnor's second feature, the easygoing romantic dramedy Liberal Arts.
Jesse (Radnor) is a New Yorker working in a college admissions office, who spends much of his spare time with his nose in a book. He is a bibliophile of the highest order, reading while walking down the street with a bag of laundry perched on his shoulder, reading under the dim light of a bedside lamp.
The concrete, steel, and petty thieves of New York appear to overwhelm Jesse, so he jumps at the chance for a brief respite when a favorite college professor invites his former student to a retirement dinner. As soon as Jesse sets foot on the manicured grounds of the Ohio liberal-arts college he once attended, the rose-colored glasses affix to his face. His newfound optimism extends to an encounter with beatific and energetic 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who seems to offer an escape to a place where this restless 35-year-old might momentarily evade his existential frustrations.
He can't relive his college years, but at least he can hover while his age-inappropriate love interest goes through the process for the first time.
Jesse encounters a number of other characters, all similarly disgruntled with their current lots in life. There's Dean (John Magaro), a loner with a similar affection for books; the bitter romantics expert, Professor Fairfield (Allison Janney); and Peter Hoberg (the always-wonderful Richard Jenkins), who claims to hate his job and retires, only to realize he isn't ready to leave.
But some rays of sunshine creep through. Aside from Zibby, that brightness comes from Nat (Zac Efron), an earflap-cap-sporting stock character - the stoner-dude-type philosopher - who waxes poetic on topics from caterpillar-to-butterfly transformations to crop circles.
While a few story lines intersect, the film feels, thankfully, less busy than Radnor's first big-screen outing, Happythankyoumoreplease. Still, this film possesses a similar triviality to that first effort. Liberal Arts has its bright moments, and it's an enjoyable watch, but it probably won't serve up outbursts of laughter or moments of epiphany.
Despite his stubborn insistence on wistfulness and his literary snobbery, Jesse remains the agreeable Everyman familiar to fans of Radnor's work on the popular television show How I Met Your Mother. His charm sneaks up on you.