Liberal Arts (IFC Films)
Written and directed by Josh Radnor
Starring Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser
Two years after premiering “happythankyoumoreplease” at the Sundance Film Festival, actor Josh Radnor, best known for his role as Ted on CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother,” returned with his second film as writer/director. Having not seen his previous movie, we didn’t have much to compare it to, but it was one of the standouts at a Sundance slate that left us somewhat disappointed and wondering if we’ll get anything that approaches the greatness of Zach Braff’s “Garden State.” Radnor’s second film certainly delivers a similar experience and should appeal to fans of what’s become a Sundance classic.
Directing from his own script, Radnor plays Jesse Fisher, a 35-year-old Brooklynite whose girlfriend has just moved out so when his old college professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) invites him to attend his retirement party, he’s off to Ohio. There he meets the free-spirited Elizabeth aka “Zippy” (aka Elizabeth Olsen, last year’s Sundance darling), the 19-year-old daughter of Hoberg’s friends. They hit it off and when Jesse returns to New York they start writing letters to each other, continuing to bond until she convinces him to return to the campus, presumably to consummate their relationship.
This sort of August to June romance is something we’ve seen before, but Radnor clearly understands the general concept of making a rom-com that needs to fulfill two key ingredients: it has to be funny and the romance needs to feel real; “Liberal Arts” does both. Some of the funniest moments are Radnor’s running commentary on college life and the significant age gap between himself and Zippy, which leads to an extended segment of them arguing over a certain series of vampire novels that appeal to young women.
If there is a thing as “college addiction” then Jesse clearly has it and Richard Jenkins’ character has it in spades as he regrets his decision to retire. For the sake of full disclosure, I never went to a big campus college like the one that acts as the central setting for Radnor’s film, but the fact that Radnor is able to get across that sense of nostalgia with someone who never had it to begin with says a lot.
It’s a very different character for Radnor that allows him to show quite a bit more range than he does as the baby-faced Ted on television. Even growing a beard gives a lot more weight to this role. Radnor keeps the cast around him fairly small allowing most of the focus to remain on his relationship with Olsen’s character, and anyone who loved her in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” will be pleasantly surprised how well she transitions into the comedy genre, coming off as someone smarter than her years. Jesse also befriends a couple of odd college kids including Zac Efron’s Dean, a spiritually zonked-out kid who doesn’t even go to the college, and Nat, a mopey younger version of Jesse who is not enjoying his college experience nearly as much as Jesse did. Then there’s Allison Janney as one of Jesse’s professors who he keeps running into on campus. In her first two scenes she barely says a word, but with just a look, you get a sense that she just doesn’t care anymore and when she does finally speak, she gives a hilarious vitriol-filled rant about college life.
The only time the movie falters even slightly is in the third act when Radnor finds what would have been a perfectly fine place to end things and yet keeps the movie going. There’s also a slight tangent for a scene with Jenkins trying to get his job back after retiring; being the only scene without Radnor, it’s a bit strange even though it is a good scene.
With “Liberal Arts,” Radnor shows incredible growth both as a filmmaker and actor to create an incredibly clever and entertaining film that goes beyond the normal “rom-com” genre to instead be something that can be relatable to audiences of all ages and genders. That’s quite an achievement for any movie, let alone a personal indie like this one.