In Liberal Arts, his second feature film, actor-turned-writer/director Josh Radnor, best known to most of the world as Ted on the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother, takes on a squirm-inducing topic: age inappropriate temptation. Radnor stars as a man of 35 trying to work out the kinks of his dissatisfaction with his life through a tantalizing attraction to a 19-year-old college student. It’s about as pleasant and eager to please as a story of that nature can be and, in its best moments, evokes the wistful collegiate tone of Wonder Boys. In its lesser moments, of which there are more, Liberal Arts calls to mind more the spirit of an alumni magazine, so bathed in nostalgia for academia that you expect autumn leaves to flutter down to the theater floor.
Jesse Fisher (Radnor) is a college admissions officer. The film opens with a montage of him reacting to a succession of applicants, unseen and unheard but from his responses, apparently spewing self-centered and naïve perspectives from entitled lives. Shifting in his seat, Jesse is listless and gloomy; even his beard looks morose. You’d think that in his personal life he’d avoid that age group at all costs.
Instead, on a trip back to his alma mater to celebrate the retirement of his favorite professor (Richard Jenkins) he bonds with a troubled teenaged genius (John Magaro) who walks around with Infinite Jest in his backpack and keeps running into a puckish hippie (Zac Efron) who you hope is tripping, if only to explain every foolish thing that comes out of his mouth. Most important, Jesse begins an intense flirtation with a sophisticated sophomore named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). Radnor shot Liberal Arts at his own alma mater, Kenyon College, an idyllic campus presented as Jesse’s Eden, both the place that he was most happy and alive and where the dangerous new temptation dangles before his eyes. Can he pick the Zibby apple and still respect himself in the morning?
Radnor made a genius move in casting Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Silent House). He plays the part of Jesse so straight (nicely subdued in fact) that he needs a serious spark to play off of. And he gets it. In addition to Olsen’s physical allure—she is more luscious peach than apple—a light shines from her Zibby that suggests intelligence, street smarts and kindness. She’s so captivating and seemingly mature that Jesse’s attraction to her doesn’t come across as creepy as say, Michael Fassbender’s adult-lusting-after-a-teen character in Fish Tank or as pathetic as say, Peter O’Toole’s horny old man in Venus. Jesse could talk himself, and for part of the movie, at least some of his audience, into thinking he’s simply putting in a pre-order in on an awesome future woman. Who wants him. She even sends him back to his mundane grown-up life with a mix tape. Of opera and classical music. Which she learned about in one of those music survey classes recommended for all future attendees of Eastern Seaboard cocktail parties. They exchange letters about how transcendent opera is. (The characters are not nearly as detestable as that sounds, mainly because Radnor and Olsen work well together. They don’t have wildly hot chemistry, but since they’re both mostly attracted to the idea of each other, it makes sense.) She bemoans the immaturity of the dudes on campus and invites him back.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Silent House with Elizabeth Olsen)
Technically he’s not violating any ethical codes since he doesn’t work at her college, but Jesse does consider the numbers before he goes. When he was 19, she was 3. Juxtaposing 87 with 71 gets him back in his rental car and onto campus for more talking about the beauty of the way they “connect.” “I just can’t figure out whether it’s because you’re advanced,” Jesse says to her, anxiously. “Or because I’m stunted.”
His self-awareness is admirable. I’ll leave it to viewers to find out if Jesse also has a sense of self-restraint, because to say more would be to spoil the movie’s outcome. As a filmmaker Radnor certainly shows self-restraint, as well as amiability and not much edge. (His previous feature, happythankyoumoreplease, opened to tepid reviews.) He gets a lovely performance out of Olsen, but it’s possible Clint Eastwood’s empty chair could get a lovely performance out of Olsen. Ditto for Allison Janney. She plays Jesse’s other favorite professor—he took British Romantic Literature with her—the cynical Professor Judith Fairfield, who only appears in about two scenes but upends the movie. Radnor’s writing is so funny and on point in those scenes that the rest of the movie, pleasant as it is, seems flabby in comparison. None of the bits with boys work at all: Efron is lucky in that he’s barely recognizable. Mangaro’s scenes are out of a wan after-school special. But it’s not about the limits of their talent; even Jenkins, the epitome of the reliably fine actor, flails around in a subplot that’s too obviously intended to serve as the counterpoint to Jesse’s early mid-life crisis. That said, Radnor has an ability to create a sense of mood and place. For his next outing, he’d do well to avoid returning to the same mood (ennui, generally speaking is a turn-off for the ennui-free) and type of place (elitist) if he has an interest in expanding his audience. As they say in the liberal arts community, it’s good to broaden one’s horizons.