Sunday, September 16, 2012

Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother” wrote, directed, and stars in the new collegiate romantic comedy “Liberal Arts,” about Jesse Fisher, a bibliophilic 35-year-old admissions director in New York who’s invited back to his Ohio alma mater (Kenyon? Oberlin?) by Professor Peter Hoberg, a friend who’s retiring (Richard Jenkins). Since Hoberg asks him on a day that ends in “Y,” he accepts. While he’s there, some current parents who are also friends of Hoberg’s introduce him to their daughter, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), an improv trouper who brings Jesse out of his shell by teaching him the cardinal rule of improv: you must say yes to everything.

“Liberal Arts” is the rare case of a movie getting much better as it goes along. (The second half pulls the rating up by a full star.) The writing in the first half is generic and contrived, with Jesse encountering the same two or three lovable misfits wherever he goes on campus. It gets much better when Jesse and Zibby set out on a halting age-gap romance, including a back-and-forth series of handwritten letters that are quite lovely and charming. Olsen showed in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” that even at her age she can hold the camera in her thrall, and she does so here through Jesse’s eyes. Radnor is sweetly appealing and totally convincing in this part. He has an encounter with Alison Janney as a favorite romantic-lit professor that unfolds in hilarious and unexpected ways; it’s a small marvel.

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