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Possibilities for the point of Liberal Arts: finding (inappropriate) romance when you least expect it. Hanging onto the past. Growing old. Letting go too soon. Allowing cynicism to snuff out optimism. Allowing optimism to crack through cynicism. Is that enough? Writer, director, and star Josh Radnor (of How I Met Your Mother fame) sure has a lot of ideas for his gently diverting romantic comedy, but he hops from one to another without much depth or staying power, leaving you with a big “So what?” at the end.
Radnor plays Jesse, a college admissions administrator in New York. A former professor of his, Peter (Richard Jenkins), is retiring, and because he had developed a friendship with Jesse, he asks Jesse to return to his Ohio alma mater and say a few words at his going-away party. After getting dumped and having his laundry stolen in the good ol’ Big Apple, Jesse relishes the idea of going suburban for a while, and his return to campus offers nothing but good memories.
It also offers co-eds, including Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who’s the daughter of some friends Peter is asked to visit. Serendipity—in the form of a New Agey vagrant (Zac Efron, one of the film’s nice surprises)—brings Jesse and Zibby together, and soon they’re talking about classes and music (“it changed my life!”); then, when Jesse has to go home, exchanging letters (Zibby’s an old-fashioned girl).
If this sounds a lot like Garden State, well, it is, only with one person mourning a career instead of several people mourning a person, and a classical mixtape (how high-minded Zibby is!) taking the place of The Shins. But, as Zibby’s drunk friends put it, Jesse graduated in the ’90s, and they were born in the ’90s. Their budding attraction isn’t a great idea, but it confounds Jesse nonetheless. “I just can’t figure out if it’s because you’re advanced or because I’m stunted,” he says in one of the film’s funnier lines.
A winning subplot involves Zibby’s love of Twilight; the rest just seem thrown in to pad the script. Peter regrets his decision to retire. Another one of Jesse’s favorite professors (Allison Janney) turns out to be so sour her lips practically pucker. (“Put some armor around that gooey little heart of yours,” she tells Jesse, though he’s not exactly the one being gooey here.) There’s a suicide attempt. And, lastly, a fling with someone other than Zibby: The film ends with Jesse and that woman musing about what it’ll be like to grow old. The final scenes are scattershot and feel incomplete, even if we do see a brief moment of mutual understanding between the central couple.
Olsen, as she has been in pretty much everything since her breakout role in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is luminescent and magnetic here, even if her character is a bit too puppy-doggish and college-know-it-all to fall for. Radnor is never anything but puppy-doggish, and his appeal escapes me. The humor of some of his lines suggests he has a future as a screenwriter, while the script’s lack of direction dictates that perhaps some stringent doctoring will be in order. He’s unexceptionable but inoffensive behind the camera. In front of it, though—well, maybe he should stick to sitcoms.