Driven by books and book lovers, and meaningful quotes from William Blake and others, Liberal Arts updates the cosy, bookish love story that was 84, Charing Cross Road. But it just doesn’t have the confidence of the Anthony Hopkins-Anne Bancroft classic.
84, Charing Cross Road was a well-appointed, reliable kind of love story, the kind everybody loves - no matter that both movies deal with wildly different generations, and that the earlier film is now 25-years-old. Liberal Arts just won't be content with a single strong plotline and it rests too easily on the crutch of smart, admittedly well-executed dialogue.
Josh Radnor (from the sitcom How I Met Your Mother) wrote and directed the film and he also plays the lead character, Jesse Fisher. The 35-year-old English literature graduate is working as an admissions officer at New York University. His love life is none too good and we see him parting company with a rather embittered girlfriend. They are, of course, divvying up the meaningful books, the old 'Is this one yours or mine?' question.
Then, out of the blue, Jesse gets a call from his one-time English professor at his Ohio university alma mater. Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) is retiring after 37 years teaching and he would like Jesse - a favourite student, evidently - to be present at the retirement do.
Looking for a little excitement, Jesse jumps at the chance to go back to his venerable old college in its pretty, leafy grounds. His arrival at the campus is delightful and we get a scene that could be twee but works like a dream. Transformed back into the student he was for just a moment, he does a neat somersault, then lies flat on his back on the grass, happy just to stare up at the sky.
Sadly, this delightful scene promises more than the movie will deliver. (One can presume, moreover, that Josh Radnor too was happy at college, because much of the filming was done at his one-time university, Kenyon College.)
Professor Hoberg introduces Jesse to a couple who are also in town for the retirement event. Their daughter Elizabeth (Elizabeth Olsen) - better known as Zibby - is a 19-year-old student at the university. She flirts with the cautious Jesse and there is the promise of something developing between them.
The movie wobbles badly after this. As well as the subplot involving the retiring professor, there is another plot thread involving a young, manic depressive male student. This ancillary story is very well handled and profoundly moving, but it should be in a different movie.
The various subplots are not wedded sufficiently well to the main story. We never really figure out the absolute need for the retiring professor: after his initial function as the reason why Jesse finds himself in a university in Ohio in the first place, he seems to be wandering on set from a different movie.
But its touch of Woody Allen's flirtatious light comedy does make Liberal Arts reasonably appealing and its rather uneven charms must be acknowledged.