Release Date: 5th October, 2012
Director: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Zac Efron, Richard Jenkins
Liberal Arts is the second independent film both written and directed by How I Met Your Mother-alumni Josh Radnor. Radnor’s first directorial venture, Happythankyoumoreplease, was a success at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award and and providing a pleasant surprise to those only familiar with him as the likable, bumbling Ted Mosby. This sophomore release shares much of the escapist, idealistic tones which characterised his first film, but they are handled far more gracefully this time around – thanks primarily to some terrific performances.
Liberal Arts is a multi-generational coming of age story set primarily on Kenyon College campus in Ohio, USA. The film follows Jesse (Radnor), mid-30s and unhappy with his academic admissions job in New York, who accepts an invitation to celebrate the retirement of his old College Professor, Peter Hoberg (Jenkins). Whilst attending the celebration he encounters Zibby (Olsen), an undergraduate 16 years his junior, and the two develop a complicated relationship as Jesse finds himself in a state of regression, reminiscing about his life on campus.
Jesse and Zibby’s relationship consists primarily of pseudo-intellectual exchanges regarding the work of great novelists, philosophers and composers and both feed off the needs of the other — Zibby is mature for her years and yearns for the attention of a romantic, thoughtful partner, and Jesse seeks an intellectual fulfilment which is missing in his 9-to-5 office work. It is an interesting, yet occasionally nauseating, dynamic which is played convincingly by Radnor and Olsen; the latter particularly strong throughout, gamely holding her own against veteran co-stars Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney.
The film makes use of some great observational comedy about man-boys, campus life, appropriate relationship ages and even some good old-fashioned Twilight-bashing which treads carefully enough so as to avoid any potential incoming lawsuits. Notable supporting characters include Nat (Zac Efron), who appears intermittently as some philosophy-spewing hobo and serves as something of a spiritual guide to Jesse, and there’s the token manic depressive kid Dean (John Magaro) who is never without his copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. That can only end well, right?
Truthfully, though, the film peaks when Jesse and Zibby share the screen. Their chemistry, conflicts and conversations — no matter how pretentious — drive the film, despite frail attempts made at drumming up energy for the numerous subplots which develop throughout. The third act shies away from anything too adventurous, resulting with a pretty safe and uninspired conclusion, but the journey there is without a doubt a fun, dainty one.