Liberal Arts – Review

I wish I could go back to college: Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor

Kids, did I ever tell you about the time I realised John Radnor was more than just a TV actor?

The star of long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother has rarely been seen in other productions in more than bit parts, and it was easy to assume his career could never go the distance of those of his co-stars, who have appeared in such crowd-pleasers as American Pie, The Avengers, The Muppets and the life of Neil Patrick Harris.

But the man who is almost inseparable in public perception from the ambitious and romantic Ted Mosby of HIMYM, has shown a similarly ambitious and romantic streak since he began moonlighting as a filmmaker. His writer/director debut happythankyoumoreplease opened in 2010 to little fanfare, but Radnor’s attempt to expand from TV acting, while not extending his range as an actor beyond the shadow of Ted Mosby, was admirable. With his second feature, Liberal Arts, Radnor has made a more personal and borderline-adult film, and comparisons to a young Woody Allen, while somewhat premature, are not entirely unfounded.

Radnor (who also wrote, directed and co-produced) stars as Jesse, a 35-year-old admissions officer at a New York college, facing a crisis of faith in where his life is headed. Recently dumped and finding himself no more grown-up than he was when he graduated 13 years earlier, Jesse is in need of change that will not come. When his favourite college professor (a delightfully grumpy Richard Jenkins), who has few friends of his own, summons Jesse to his retirement do, Jesse is only too happy to get out of the city and revisit his small town alma mater.

Jesse feels both a prodigal son and strangely old and alien, and matters get confused when he finds himself drawn to plucky student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who is 16 years his junior. Their attraction to one another is evident from the get-go, but Jesse is more frightened of the emerging relationship than Zibby. Separated by distance, the pair continue a would-be courtship via snail mail (thankfully the film’s only decent into hipster nonsense), while both realising they have a lot of growing up to do.

Jesse dumbs down with some teen vampire lit

Hardly groundbreaking, Radnor’s film still contains a gentle honesty and surprising amount of wit that elevates it above more standard indie fare. One sequence after Zibby sends Jesse a mix-tape of classical music sees Radnor walking the streets of New York to a personal soundtrack of Mozart and Vivaldi – it’s little new, but the juxtaposition creates a pleasing sensation. Radnor is short on new ideas, but he does lack inspiration, and is a champion recycler.

Jesse may be a close relative of Ted Mosby, but Radnor proves his trademark character can carry a feature-length film. Elizabeth Olsen, this year’s breakthrough actress, plays the innocent optimist exquisitely – she’s neither infantile nor manic pixie. It is evident both why Jesse would be drawn to her and why she is of little interest to boys her own age, a testament to her acting chops and Radnor’s writing. Richard Jenkins plays Richard Jenkins, which is never a bad thing, while Allison Janney has plenty of fun as a fierce, man-eating, queen-bitch English professor. The film is briefly and improbably stolen by Zac Efron, in an extended cameo as a spaced-out student of life, who takes on the role of a badly hatted spirit guide to Jesse. His appearances feature some of the film’s finest dialogue, and help energise some more sombre scenes.

While ostensibly a belated-coming-of-age drama, there’s no denying Liberal Arts is very funny. Awkwardly hanging out with college students nearly half his age, Jesse is asked when he graduated, and dismisses the question with a shrugged “The ’90s”. With deflating enthusiasm, the young women respond “We were born in the ’90s!” One of the film’s finest scenes sees Jesse calculate the repercussions of his and Zibby’s age difference. As well as exposing some curious truths about age (and gender) gaps, the fact Jesse requires a calculator to perform basic mathematics highlights the day-to-day impracticality of his liberal arts education.

It may take the best bits of Manhattan and Annie Hall and produce a lesser beast, but Liberal Arts is a finely made and often touching film about nostalgia for more hopeful days. It looks like there may be a great career ahead of Radnor, even after he finally meets the mother of those children.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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