Somewhere, there exists a sick rule that says any mildly amusing indie, especially one about a depressive 30-something male—and particularly one written, directed by and starring the same person—must turn “serious” and at least moderately heavy deep into the second act. As with recent detritus Sleepwalk With Me and The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best, there’s a ticking time bomb in Liberal Arts, which begins—and, for a good while, stays—a moderately funny and even sometimes incisive comic love story with an overqualified cast and a writer/director/star who oozes low-key charm.
Best known as the lead character no one remembers on How I Met Your Mother, Josh Radnor affably plays Jesse, a mid-30s admissions officer who falls for Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a precocious 19-year-old student at his rural alma mater. Instant clicking during a campus visit leads to letter writing—via actual hand-written and -delivered letters—which leads to Jesse realizing that dating someone 16 years one’s junior actually becomes less skeezy upon entering middle and old age. Still, Jesse finds it difficult to cope with such collegiate fixtures as roommates, cafeterias, sleeping late, genuinely enjoying Twilight-ish fiction and unsullied virginity.
These are issues the hero of the recent Hello I Must Be Going—also concerning a 30-something’s relationship with a 19-year-old—didn’t have to face. That would seem to make Liberal Arts the more honest film, and perhaps it would be had it not proceeded from a comedy that took on the pangs of May-December relationships head-on to a generic drama in which our hero Learns What’s Right. As it’s ultimately revealed, every side character—including professors Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney, weirdly hammy Greek chorus Zac Efron and a sadsack kid really into David Foster Wallace—exists so that our lead can grow up. This is grating narcissism, and the film was a lot more fun when it allowed its supporting cast to doodle up the sidelines. Olsen in particular works expressive, grounded wonders on a character written as pure MPDG, once again brightening a film, like Silent House and Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, that in no way deserves her.