"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 has 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 so an A for effort and a C for execution.
Radnor, who also writes and directs, plays Jesse, a guy caught in a conundrum. He's a university admissions counselor in New York City, now 35, but not yet able to let go of a lingering nostalgia for his Midwest college days.
An invitation to a retirement dinner for one of his favorite English professors, Peter Hoberg (Jenkins) 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.
The film shifts from fond memories to a more thorny present when Jesse meets a fetching young student, Zibby (Olsen). There is an undeniable something between them. Just what that something is, or can become, remains uncertain.
Though 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.
Since their flirtation is forcing the coming-of-age issues, there should be a visible attraction. But the filmmaker does a better job in drawing out the couple's differences than igniting a spark.
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 simply never hit a false note.
This is Radnor's second film, and it relies on the same gentle humor to carry it that made 2010's "Happythankyoumoreplease" such a festival favorite. 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.
Two 1/2 stars
Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Zac Efron and Allison Janney