The benefits of youth. Channeling your unfiltered enthusiasm into ‘passion projects’ as your mind is filled with golden nuggets of knowledge from your intellectual superiors. Endless possibilities as you casually ‘waltz’ down various avenues perfecting your ‘ideal future’. But.. once released into the skyscraping ‘wild’, the overwhelming majority have a tendency to struggle to cope with the hardships of the real world. Time to allow How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor be a ‘guidance counsellor’ of sorts, as he portrays such a downbeat figure in his latest directorial effort ‘Liberal Arts’.
Radnor plays old school romantic and mid life crisis sufferer Jesse. Seeking solace in literature to block out the mediocrity of his New York lifestyle, he is prompted by a beloved professor from his college ‘hey day’ to take a trip down memory lane. With Richard Jenkins’ Peter Hoberg preparing for a much deserved retirement, he invites Jesse to his retirement send-off back at his former college stomping ground in Ohio.
Brimming with excitement about his return, the last thing he bargains for is a student from the current crop of aspiring thinkers declaring her affections for him. The lady in question, is 19 year old Zibby played by Elizabeth Olsen. Quick witted and a firm believer in thoughtful handwritten letters and classical music, their compatability to the untrained eye is undeniable. However, the age gap is declared a stumbling block or in Jesse’s words ‘I’m not sure if it’s because you’re advanced, or that i’m stunted?’.
Liberal Arts is essentially a love letter to literature and relationships firmly built on intelligent foundations. What Josh Radnor lacks in directorial prowess, he more than makes up for in sharp observation and heartfelt insight without proving snobby in execution. Tapping into the notions that ‘social awkwardness is more common in lovers of the arts’ and how converting the knowledge you’ve accumulated should be ultimately applied into your own life experiences are particularly well handled.
The double act of Radnor and Olsen are a complete delight. Radnor’s bumbling persona and Olsen’s maturity beyond her years intertwined with the sharp script makes this driving force behind the film unashamedly romantic, even when disagreeing over popular novels. The age gap aspect never feels perverse in any form and is mischeviously sent up in a sequence involving Jesse mulling over the numbers.
They are ably supported by the underrated talents of Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney’s barbed wire tongued professor who in particular, almost steals the film with back to back scenes of pure brilliance (Put some armour around that gooey little heart of yours!). The only misstep in the casting is Zac Efron’s zany student. Bound to find it a breeze to apply for Slackers club, his character feels shoehorned in and ill fitting of a cinematic piece of this nature and more appropriate for a sitcom.
Thoughtful, charming and brimming with inspired intertextual references, ‘Liberal Arts’ is damning evidence that Radnor’s talent is too great to be confined to the small screen. Sublime.