(PG, 97 minutes.)
There are some great lines in Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts, mere sentences that get to the crux of a scene, but the best is early on, when the departing girlfriend of Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor) tells him: ''It's not my job to make you feel good about yourself any more.'' It speaks to the thirtysomething New Yorker's indecision and uncertainty, but it also sticks because, as the film unfolds, Radnor - also the writer and director - takes over, making sure Jesse feels good.
Liberal Arts Trailer
Josh Radnor plays Jesse; a jaded, thirtysomething whose life hasn’t worked out quite the way he’d planned. But when he returns to his old university he meets meets 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) and sparks fly.
Radnor is best known as Ted on the successful television show How I Met Your Mother, and his first film, 2010's Happythankyoumoreplease, was a grab bag of wry independent-film cliches leavened with a love of Woody Allen and sitcom slickness. Liberal Arts is a better film, but sometimes that's only because it's better at camouflaging the filmmaker's flaws.
For a start, it's set primarily at Jesse's former university in Iowa, which means the likes of the US's finest character actor, Richard Jenkins, and West Wing alumni Allison Janney have sharply penned supporting roles. The pair are Jesse's favourite professors - Jenkins' Peter is, unhappily, retiring - but it's a student, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who connects with him as they talk and then share letters and music.
It's not easy to be the alternative dream girl in an American film, but like Natalie Portman in Zach Braff's Garden State, Olsen invests her character with a charm and a sense of uncluttered perception. Bemoaning "the dude situation" on campus, Zibby pursues Jesse, even making a case for why him being 35 and her 19 is irrelevant. Jesse bounces from encounter to encounter, whether it's with Janney's bitter, predatory teacher or a cosmic campus bro played with actorly precision by Zac Efron.
Radnor gives himself wise and pithy lines to pass on that sound good but ultimately feel like a writer's fourth draft instead of real life. In a film where everyone is confounded by the requirements of their age - Zibby wants to be older, Peter younger - Liberal Arts just manages to stay on the right side of charming. But Radnor's problem stems from his casting prowess: Jenkins, Janney and Olsen are all so pleasurably adept in their parts that the film's star suffers by comparison. Jesse needs more than Josh Radnor's glibness.