“Liberal Arts” isn’t a cinematic revelation in any way, but it’s a wise, low-key, and wistful back-to-school comedy, and that’s saying something. “Back-to-school comedy” might be selling it as something funnier than it really is, especially with those previous descriptors, but “How I Met Your Mother” star Josh Radnor’s second writing-directing feature to 2010’s earnest “Happythankyoumoreplease” is neither biting nor sitcommy. Being his less contrived effort, this one provides enough wit and truth that naturally spring from Radnor’s interesting characters and their conversations.
Radnor also stars as Jesse, a 35-year-old admissions counselor at a New York City university who’s just coming off of a break-up. When he returns to his Ohio alma mater to attend a retirement dinner for his favorite English professor, Peter Hoburg (Richard Jenkins), Jesse finds himself stuck between being a college student and a mature adult. It’s there that he’s introduced to Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the 19-year-old daughter of Peter’s friends and a drama-studying sophomore. They strike up a connection and spend the day together. “I just can’t figure out if it’s because you’re advanced or because I’m stunted,” Jesse questions. Despite their 16-year age difference (she was 0 when he was 16), Zibby’s admiration for classical opera influences him and they begin hand-writing letters to one another after Jesse gets back to the city.
Like “Happythankyoumoreplease,” Radnor’s characters are likable and so damn nice, and they actually talk, mostly about literature. Jesse always has his nose in a book, and in one of the funnier moments, he’s appalled to find Zibby has a copy of “Twilight,” which he borrows to read and then discusses it with her. She unironically likes it and he snobbily calls it “the worst book ever written in English.” When dealing with Radnor and Olsen just bantering and talking intelligently, the film has real spark. Like a solid Everyman from the Paul Rudd School, Radnor is a nice match with Olsen, who’s as lovely and charismatic as ever. Their relationship isn’t hard to digest, especially when Radnor takes it in more honest directions. There’s also a relaxed mood and Seamus Tierney’s cinematography beautifully captures the leafy atmosphere of a college campus.
Though amusingly portrayed by Zac Efron, his character Natâ€”an advice-dropping bohemian in a winter stocking hatâ€”is so distractingly unnecessary that he might just be a figment of Jesse’s imagination, or not. Better are Jenkins, a professor who questions his retirement and Jesse’s voice of reason (“You may feel nineteen, but you’re not”), and John Magaro as Dean, a brilliant but “aggressively unhappy” student who had a manic episode last semester but connects with Jesse over their love of a Foster Wallace novel. But it’s Allison Janney who has the most bite as Jesse’s crabby, unromantic former professor of Romantics. He gushes about her class, even though she barely remembers him. They don’t have quite the May-December romance, but she lends a dose of irony and some great sarcasm. Finally, the come-and-go appearance of a more age-appropriate bookworm, charmingly played by Elizabeth Reaser, finally makes sense but feels a tad contrived.
A little leap of faith has to be taken to understand why Jesse’s dirty laundry would be stolen by a punk in the film’s opening moments. The only reason is for Jesse to buy a new plaid shirt and have two women comment on it. Overall, it might be a slight little movie, but rather than being self-conscious and gooey, “Liberal Arts” has a literate brain and a romantic heart.
97 min., not rated.