In his first big-screen sitcom, HappyThankYouMorePlease, writer-director-star Josh Radnor emulated Woody Allen. Radnor's second feature, Liberal Arts, is less Allenesque, except for one crucial, and vexing, aspect: It's about an older man's infatuation with a younger woman.
Filmed largely at Ohio's Kenyon College, the How I Met Your Mother star's actual alma mater, Liberal Arts begins with a 35-year-old who's still besotted with his undergraduate experience. Jesse Fisher (Radnor) rapturously recalls a class on British romantic poets taught by Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). And he has stayed in touch with a favorite poli-sci instructor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins, who had a smaller and funnier role in the director's earlier movie).
It's the about-to-retire Peter who summons Jesse from New York City to Kenyon so he can speak at a farewell dinner. But the trip's big event is his meeting the unfortunately nicknamed Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a vivacious 19-year-old theater student. If Jesse and Zibby are at a similar level of maturity, it's not because the latter is so advanced for her age.
The two bond, as arty undergrads do, with music and literature. Zibby introduces Jesse to the composers she just met in an introductory classical-music class. (Apparently, Jesse got a liberal arts degree without ever hearing any Beethoven.) He finds an unidentified vampire novel — one of the Twilight series, presumably — in her dorm room, and reads it just so he can tell her how bad it is.
If Jesse and Zibby's conversations are mildly painful, they're a delight compared to their correspondence. Zibby's an old-fashioned girl, and she insists the new pals write to each other — like, on paper! These missives are read in voice-over while the not-quite-lovers are separated, and they are credibly pompous and fatuous. That is, Jesse's are; Zibby's are less adolescent, although not more interesting.
On periodic trips to Kenyon, Jesse also meets two other young'uns: Nat, a latter-day hippie played by High School Musical alumnus Zac Efron, and Dean (John Magaro), a manic-depressive who shares Jesse's taste in modern lit. (The book that unites them, never named, is clearly David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.)
Nat exists to deliver a benediction, "Everything is OK," that echoes the title of Radnor's previous movie. And Dean is there to show how benevolent Jesse is; the alum barely knows the dejected kid, but he volunteers to be his personal suicide hotline.
Jesse's nobility is one of the primary reasons Liberal Arts is so hard to take. Granted, Radnor has scripted a few missteps for his alter ego, including a tawdry (and unconvincing) tryst with Professor Fairfield. And his rant against the Twilight books is supposed to show his dislikable pedantic side.
Most of the time, though, Radnor seems pretty impressed with the version of himself he's playing. This also was a problem with his other film, in which he played a would-be novelist who casually adopts a kid who gets lost on the subway. His character's relationship with a younger person isn't quite as reckless this time, but we're clearly supposed to love both characters for the way they pick up strays.
HappyThankYouMorePlease was more of an ensemble piece, so Radnor didn't dominate. This time, the only character other than Jesse who gets much screen time is the underwritten, over-innocent Zibby. When Nat counsels that "Everything is OK," he appears to be affirming, well, everything. But Liberal Arts appears designed primarily to affirm Josh Radnor.