Age of enlightenmentEntertainment Movies
Learning curve … Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Olsen in Liberal Arts.
American writer-director Josh Radnor takes some big risks with this highly romantic campus comedy.
It's set in the present, yet he's created two characters who write to one another using pen and paper. Worse, she creates a musical playlist for him out of compositions by Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi and Wagner.
Radnor himself calls it a love letter to a liberal arts education and a movie for book lovers, which rather sounds as if he's signing his own death warrant. If he loves books so much, why didn't he stay home and read one?
It's a brutal but fair question. After all, we're living in the age of gross-out. But happily, he comes up with pretty solid answers. First up, his characters are very easy to like and as well as being fans of the art of conversation, they're good at it. Radnor (star of TV's How I Met Your Mother) can write. He's also wryly aware of the dangers of studying the world through books instead of getting out and inhabiting it.
Appropriately enough, he shot the film at the university at which he studied - Kenyon College near Columbus, Ohio - a tranquil, sylvan spot, full of dappled light and quiet pathways conducive to contemplation. He liked it so much, he's said, that graduation felt ''less like a celebration than a banishment''.
Jesse Fisher (Radnor), a 35-year-old admissions officer at New York University, has the same attitude to his college days. His job is repetitive, he has just split with his girlfriend and he's feeling desperately in need of distraction when one of his favourite professors invites him to his retirement dinner. It will be his first trip back to the campus since graduation.
The professor is played by Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), an actor who enriches every film he's in by seeming to do very little. Tall, balding and thoughtful looking, he's often cast as somebody's mentor, but there's a hint of the impetuous there, as well. Here, it strikes as he begins to ponder his retirement's implications, belatedly - and unwisely - realising that he doesn't really want to go.
Allison Janney, cast as another of Jesse's fondly remembered teachers, has the opposite problem. She's so disillusioned by the academic life that she spends all her leisure hours drunk. When Jesse seeks her out to tell her how much he liked her classes, she regards him with scorn and gives him a lecture on his urgent need to toughen up.
And she's partly right. Looking like a younger and much softer Kevin Kline, Radnor does have the air of someone who's yet to make up his mind about anything. Worse, the professor's warning has come too late for he's already fallen - in a chaste and wary way - for Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old sophomore who knows almost as much about books as he does and much more about music. Talk is their aphrodisiac and when he returns to New York, her playlist and her letters keep him company. Nonetheless, he can't discount their age difference, much as he would like to. There's a rueful scene in which he sits down to consider what this gap will mean at various stages in their lives and however he arranges the numbers, they just don't work.
Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) is wonderful in a role that could easily have come across as being irritatingly twee and perky. She's warm and funny and, although she can look classically beautiful, she's slightly gawky at times. Best of all, she's adept at sending up Jesse. And the book talk is well pitched - even when it gets serious, as it does when Jesse finds himself counselling Dean (John Magro), a brilliant student who suffers from depression.
The only extraneous note is Zac Efron's cameo as a new-ager aiming to infect everybody he meets with his joie de vivre.
It's a film about youth worship but not of the kind that we so often see in Hollywood rom-coms. Jesse learns in the end about the hazards of wanting to be Peter Pan - that nostalgia can be a trap, blinding you to the pleasure and the challenges of the here and now, and that you can't return to ''Go'' and start again. Excitement, as well as virtue, can be found in carrying on with what you've got.
And while it's certainly a film for book lovers, its delight in reading, learning, music and discussing is so persuasive that it could win a few converts.
Oh, yes, it's sexy, as well.
Directed by Josh Radnor
Rated PG, 97 minutes