The bookish group at the heart of this talky film —
Radnor, who also writes and directs, plays Jesse, a guy caught in a conundrum. He's a university admissions counselor in New York, now 35 but not yet able to let go of a lingering nostalgia for his Midwest college days. That's clear in the clever opening as he pitches the many virtues of a liberal arts education to some faceless student who doesn't begin to share his enthusiasm.
But it does put Jesse in the right state of mind to accept an invitation to a retirement dinner for one of his favorite English professors, Peter Hoberg (Jenkins). While New York has been giving him a rough time — he's just out of a relationship, a laundromat thief makes off with his clothes — Jesse's alma mater embraces him.
The occasion allows Jesse to give into, and reflect on, all those old feelings — not of the frat-boy party type but the coffeehouse debates over favorite authors. It becomes a crafty way to dissect the way in which nostalgia can trump the harder truths of the past. When Jesse bumps into professor Judith Fairfield (Janney) and begins gushing about her class on the Romantics, he barely merits an arched brow.
The film shifts from fond memories to a more thorny present when Jesse meets a fetching young student, Zibby (Olsen), who also loves the Romantics. There is an undeniable something between them. Just what that something is, or can become, remains uncertain. Zibby is 19, and it's been 16 years since Jesse was that age.
Though Jesse returns to New York, he and Zibby begin an old-fashioned correspondence — letters sent via
Because their flirtation is forcing the coming-of-age issues, there should be a visible attraction. But the filmmaker does a better job in drawing out the couple's differences than igniting a spark. When they go back to Zibby's dorm room to "make out," its priceless to watch Jesse's discomfort as it dawns on him just how absurd the situation is.
Olsen continues to show that her breakthrough in
This is Radnor's second film, and he relies on the same gentle humor to carry it that made 2010's
'Liberal Arts' -- 2 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:37