Writer/director Josh Radnor doesn’t quite knock it out of the park with “Liberal Arts,” his superior follow-up to “Happythankyoumoreplease,” but he does score serious nostalgia points, making palpable the unmistakable joys of revisiting one’s college years.
Radnor stars as Jesse, a 35-year-old, New York-based admissions counselor who, upon the request of his former professor (Richard Jenkins), a soon-to-be retiree, ventures to Ohio’s Kenyon College, the character’s and filmmaker’s alma mater. There, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a student 16 years his junior, who complicates his already gnarled desire to rekindle his youth.
Along with a sense of discontentment, the longing for time gone by is a feeling that unites most of the characters, from Jesse and Jenkins’ reluctant veteran to a saucy romantics professor played by Allison Janney, who takes delicious advantage of a role that coaxes out her inner cougar. Playing a member of an improv group with tons of life ahead of her, the ever-zestful Olsen is the film’s embodiment of enviable open-mindedness, which helps to make her character so alluring. The ace actress shares a cool rapport with Radnor, whose personal ties to the setting and story help everything ring true.
Of course, there is some vexing familiarity to the movie’s themes, as struggling through the aging process is hardly anything novel, but it’s the spirit Radnor captures that makes his work distinct. The inherently bucolic campus setting is adoringly photographed, juxtaposed with Manhattan’s bustle and nimbly scored to augment that rediscovery thrill. What’s more, “Liberal Arts” offers sharp commentary on cultural consumption, as much of Jesse and Zibby’s courtship concerns bonding over classics (Beethoven) while sparring over trash (vampire novels). The inevitable generation gap is coupled with the common question of which entertainments are worth your time.
Most of all, the movie illuminates the passions of Radnor himself, who clearly wants to air creative ambitions beyond his work on “How I Met Your Mother.” Despite his missteps, the driven multi-hyphenate succeeds, suggesting a bright professional future by digging up the past.
Three reels out of four
Opens Friday at the Ritz Five
It’s certainly not the collaborators’ best, but Tim Burton and Johnny Depp fans will want to add “Dark Shadows” to their viewing queue, as the duo continues to operate in synch. Reigniting the lead character from the cult soap opera, Depp is Barnabus Collins, a long-undead vampire revived in the 1970s to live among his descendants. The sterling supporting cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter.
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