Selected (97 minutes)
IS THERE anything more depressing - in movies or in life - than someone who ''loves books''? Jesse (Josh Radnor), the callow hero of Liberal Arts, is one such book-crazy nerd, who has his nose in a book at all times (on the subway, in bed, walking down the street) and who hangs out in bookshops quoting passages to equally bookish women, who say things such as ''I'm actually trying to read less''. Books are everything to Jesse, yet the film is largely uninterested in what he reads and why. Perhaps he doesn't know himself, given what he snaps in an unguarded moment during an argument about Chaucer: ''You're not supposed to like it.''
In his mid-30s, Jesse still regards his college years as the best of his life. Newly single and at a loose end, he accepts an invitation to return to his alma mater in Ohio to visit a favourite teacher (Richard Jenkins). On campus he meets a string of characters conveniently ready to advance his belated sentimental education, including a free-spirited 19-year-old named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) with whom he has an instant rapport.
Zibby belongs to a student comedy troupe, and explains that the first rule of improvisation is to ''say yes'' to everything, a philosophy she applies on and off the stage. On the other hand, she's an old soul who appreciates Beethoven and handwritten letters, and who finds boys her own age too crude for words. ''I'd like a gentleman caller,'' she archly informs Jesse, ''and I'd like him to be you.''
Radnor is best known as the star of How I Met Your Mother, and presumably his TV fame has allowed him to write and direct this curious vanity project, which resembles a very poor man's version of an Eric Rohmer talkfest. Though Jesse's pretensions are mildly satirised, nearly every exchange seems meant to show off his wit and charm.
It doesn't help that as a performer Radnor barely tries to escape his sitcom reflexes. He's lucky to have the support of an old pro such as Jenkins, let alone a star of tomorrow such as Olsen, who confirms the promise of Martha Marcy May Marlene by single-handedly redeeming large chunks of the dreadful script.
Zibby describes herself as merely a ''rough draft'' of an imagined later self; Olsen brings this glib conception to life with restless movements, sing-song speech and Kewpie-doll eyes that pop out when her character gets excited.
Flexible yet defensive, Zibby uses her pose of insouciance as a safeguard - any gesture or claim can be followed by a quick laugh that implies, ''You didn't think I was serious, did you?'' Olsen's performance shares stylised hyper-realism - the emphasis on tiny fluctuations of speech and thought - associated with ''mumblecore'' stars such as Greta Gerwig. Indeed, Liberal Arts forms an unofficial trilogy with the recent Damsels in Distress, with Gerwig, and Pitch Perfect, with Anna Kendrick: three campus comedies in which the high-minded heroines seem possessed of more intelligence than they know what to do with.
Sadly, Radnor has little interest in Zibby as anything more than a tool for helping his man-boy hero grow up. Jesse eventually realises you can't step into the same river twice - but the message would be more persuasive if the film itself wasn't packed with undergraduate ironies, such as when a scholar of romantic poetry (Allison Janney) turns out to be anything but romantic in person. Similarly, the late David Foster Wallace is dragged in simply so we can be reminded he committed suicide - and so Jesse can advise a young, depressive friend (John Magaro)to move on to a more upbeat author.
Supposedly, this proves that literature doesn't hold all the answers to real-world problems; in practice, it mainly shows just how crass Radnor's name-dropping can be.