Elizabeth Olsen figures prominently in “Liberal Arts,” which is the first clue that this might be a pretty good film. (I think Olsen is the cat’s pajamas.)
Then you realize that this triple-threat effort (writer, director, star) from Josh Radnor has a lot more than Just OIsen going for it.
Radnor is a regular on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother,” but his film is blessedly free of sitcom-y moments.
It’s a funny, thoughtful, and tasteful movie — and it had better be, given that it centers on one of the more catastrophe-courting plots.
This is an older-man/younger-woman movie, a genre that can easily slide into EWWWWW territory.
But Radnor pulls it off effortlessly.
His character, Jesse, is a late-thirtysomething, now an admissions officer for a big-city Eastern university, who returns to his small-town Midwestern alma mater to celebrate the retirement of his favorite professor (Richard Jenkins).
You’d think that working in higher ed would have left Jesse thoroughly inured to the charms of campus life, but walking the same old sidewalks makes him feel young again.
There is, for example, a bearded oddball in a woolen cap (Zac Efron) who materializes at unexpected moments to guide the much older Jesse to various keg parties where he’s the oldest person present by a decade.
Jesse also finds himself making a play for one of his former teachers (Allison Janney) for whom he has long had the hots — though he finds that in the sack she’s about as romantic as a Marine D.I.
And especially there’s Zibby (Olsen), a bright, vivacious (but far from empty) coed who decides that Jesse is just the man to take her virginity.
Okay, okay, I can hear the eyes rolling out there in internet land. But the marvel of Radnor’s movie is that it never goes where you expect it to, deftly sidestepping all the premise’s tawdry quagmires.
Yes, the Jesse/Zibby romance is pregnant with erotic possibilities, but Jesse is too much of a solid mensch to act on it. Getting down with a girl almost 20 years his junior strikes him as, well, unseemly.
(When was the last time a male movie protagonist turned down sex because it didn’t seem like the right thing to do? I can’t think of an example, either.)
In a weird way this is a dual coming-of-age story, with both the immature Jesse and the wise-beyond-her-years Zibby emerging from their relationship with new goals and perspectives.
Along the way Radnor delivers many laughs, a few flashes of wisdom, a genuinely touching romance and an almost magical view of college life.
So listen up, college kids. You won’t know how good you now have it until you’ve endured a few years of responsible adulthood. By that time you're really going to need a movie like "Liberal Arts."