As writer, director and star of Liberal Arts, Josh Radnor comes right up to the edge of the high-diving board, takes a mischievous look around, and then sheepishly climbs back down. That’s a shame. But the movie, about the attraction of a 35-year-old man (Radnor) and a college sophomore (Elizabeth Olsen), still has glints of daring to pull you in. Radnor, who’s been playing lead sitcom character Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother since 2005, won the 2010 Sundance Audience award for his first feature, happythankyoumoreplease. And he has a true filmmaker’s eye for detail and atmosphere.
Radnor’s Jesse Fisher is drifting. A college admissions officer in New York, Jesse feels wistful about his own campus days. He gets to relive them for real when he visits Ohio’s Kenyon College (Radnor’s own alma mater) to attend the retirement dinner of Peter (Richard Jenkins), his favorite prof back in the day. That’s when Jesse meets Zibby (Olsen), a student of improv theater who wings life in a way Jesse envies. You get the picture. And Radnor, with the help of the beguiling Olsen (on leave from the heavier dramatics of Martha Marcy May Marlene, she creates something lovely and scrappy of their tentative romance). The age jokes – when he was 19, she was three – are handled with a tart agility. For a while, you don’t know where these two are heading. Then Radnor starts to color inside the lines. Subplots involving a student (John Magaro) and a hippie (Zac Efron) are merely distracting. Jenkins and the ever-glorious Allison Janney, as a prof whose romance lit class once fired Jesse’s libido, do way better. But these plot strands dodge the edgier complications that arise between Jesse and Zibby. Radnor and Olsen are so funny and touching you want to say happythankyoumoreplease. What you get is frustratingly less. Still, to the movie’s refreshingly uncynical credit, you feel for them.