Alternating between trite over-earnestness and clear-minded observation, Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts manages to hint at both the yearning for adulthood of sensitive college kids and, more convincingly, the discontent and uncertainty of a certain generation of thirtysomething males, emotional, self-doubting, adrift in an uncertain professional world of diminishing opportunity. This last predicament is embodied by New York–based college admissions officer Jesse Fisher (Radnor), who returns to the bucolic, Oberlin-like campus of his Midwestern alma mater for the retirement ceremony of his favorite professor. Self-reflections ensue as does a would-be romance with a precocious 19-year-old undergrad, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the latter leading to a series of pen pal exchanges when Jesse goes back east and a return visit to the campus to see the young woman 16 years his junior. Despite the possible creepiness of the scenario, Radnor plays the scenes between himself and Olsen with restrained intelligence, understanding the ways both characters project their uncertainties and desires onto each other. Unfortunately, when the two are apart, he too often falls back on some less inspired ideas (a rhapsodic, classical-music-fueled epiphany at Grand Army Plaza, a bitter fuck-and-run female professor). Still, in the central relationship, the writer-director shows an understanding of human interaction that marks his second feature as a quantum leap beyond his stilted debut, Happythankyoumoreplease.
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