By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – As a romantic comedy and a coming-of-age drama, Liberal Arts majors in maturity and manhood, romance and regret. And because it’s a distinctive and original film, we experience the romance without regret.
Josh Radnor plays a 35-year-old named Jesse Fisher, who works indifferently as a university admissions counselor in New York City.
When he returns to his picturesque Midwest alma mater to attend a retirement party for his favorite professor (Richard Jenkins), he meets a 19-year-old undergraduate sophomore called Zibby, played by Elizabeth Olsen, with whom he has an immediate and obvious rapport.
“I can’t figure out,” he says to her, “if it’s because you’re advanced or I’m stunted.”
The 16 years between their ages, an uncomfortable chasm to begin with, seems even more imposing when Jesse considers the contrast between his current stage of life and hers.
And the throwback correspondence they enter into – remember handwritten, mailed letters? – despite its old-fashioned charm, does little to bridge the gaps between them.
Writer and director Radnor, who is doing both for a second time (Happythankyoumoreplease) while serving as a first-time producer, is best known for his work as a television actor (How I Met Your Mother).
Radnor shot this labor-of-love project at his actual alma mater, Kenyon College, in Ohio, although it’s never identified as such.
His screenplay is characterized by gentle, unforced humor, and his distinctive and appealing style both as a director and as an actor is slyly understated, alert to behavioral nuance, and rarely if ever pushy or ostentatious.
He gets fine work from his cast, which includes not only Jenkins as a recently retired professor who already regrets his decision to hang ‘em up, Zac Efron as the philosophical campus “bohemian,” Allison Janney as an acerbic professor of Romantic poetry, and Elizabeth Reaser as a fetching, age-appropriate, and interested book store clerk.
Everyone in the ensemble seems to be relishing Radnor’s sharp dialogue, including Olsen, who continues to impress as gifted and skilled beyond her years and experience. She and Radnor have just the right kind of chemistry to sell their bonding.
Radnor knows to plays to his quiet, modest film’s strengths, which makes it a pleasing and resonant viewing experience if not a particularly exciting or cathartic one.