Quietly and unobtrusively, actor Josh Radnor is building himself a filmography of solidly made, unobtrusively sly and intelligent comedy.
With 2010's Happythankyoumoreplease (which had its flaws but also its pleasures) and now with Liberal Arts (open in limited release), Radnor proves that he knows a thing or two about love, romance and the human element that always seems to trip people up in pursuit of either.
Radnor, who wrote and directed Liberal Arts, plays Jesse, a college admissions officer in New York who walks around with his nose in a book, while trying to convince himself that this job has something to do with literature and academia. He's pleased and proud when he gets a call from his favorite college professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), at the school he attended in Ohio, asking if he'll come back to campus and speak at the professor's retirement party.
Once there, he starts a flirtation with a free-spirited co-ed, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), not quite 20 but wise beyond her years. Or so she seems to Jesse, who goes back to New York and begins an exchange of actual, paper-and-ink letters with the Ohio undergraduate -- and eventually travels back to campus for what he thinks will be a romantic visit. To his chagrin, it is -- and he's not prepared for his own reaction.
Jesse's counter is Hoberg, played with delicious regret and aggressive insecurity by Richard Jenkins. Almost as soon as he retires, Hoberg regrets his decision. Now what does he do with the rest of his life?
The writing is witty without being strained and the performances have the kind of off-handedly self-deprecating humor that make these characters attractive and likeable. Jenkins, one of our best film actors, finds the desperation but also the humor therein, while Radnor and Olsen have a delicious chemistry that transforms into something recognizably uncomfortable. Look for Allison Janney in a brief but tangy turn as the snooty prof who doesn't remember Jesse, despite his longstanding crush on her.
Liberal Arts is more bittersweet than you might expect, but those can be the best kind of romantic comedies. And this is one of the better ones.
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