College is a magical time. Who would ever want to leave?
“Liberal Arts,” directed, written by, and starring Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”), is the story of Jesse Fisher, a 35-year-old NYU admissions officer. He’s unsatisfied with his job, was just dumped by his girlfriend, and someone just stole all his clothes from the laundromat. When an old college professor (Richard Jenkins) calls him up and asks him to visit his alma mater for a retirement party Jesse jumps at the chance.
Back at his liberal arts college in Ohio Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). A 19-year-old co-ed who is wise beyond her years and finds a kindred spirit in Jesse. The two share a platonic attraction to each other. Through their relationship and his time back on campus Jesse begins to leave his romanticized views of college behind and steps into the adult world.
I went to a liberal arts school in Connecticut so I can identify with Jesse. I can’t speak for other college or university environments but liberal arts schools are mini universes all unto themselves. They’re these perfect idyllic bubbles that suck you in and make everything else feel like crap once you leave. It’s easy to idealize your time there.
Radnor does a great job of capturing that feeling in “Liberal Arts,” but the film never seems to go far enough. It keeps building up and building up but never breaks through. There’s just not enough umph.
The story of a guy dissatisfied with his life trying to relive his youth is very relatable. Radnor is a very likable actor and charming on screen. You can identify with him. Allison Janney, as another professor, plays an important role. She forces Jesse to rethink all of his memories and bursts his liberal arts bubble he’s been living in since graduation. But even his character’s turn-around from stunted man-child to grown-up doesn’t feel substantial.
There are two other side characters that I desperately wanted to know more about but they seemed to only be there to serve as stereotypical college stock characters. Zac Efron as a maybe he’s stoned or maybe he’s just really in tune with nature zen wisdom guy, and John Magaro as a super smart loner, can’t handle life manic depressive.
The acting in this movie is top-notch. I continue to be impressed by Olsen and her choices in film projects. Jenkins and Janney never disappoint. And Efron was really entertaining. So much that I wish he’d had a bigger role. Radnor shows promise as a writer and director but his Jesse character is very similar to Ted Mosby on “HIMYM.” I happen to be a big Ted fan so I didn’t mind that so much.
“Liberal Arts” is in a pretty small release but if you can find it I recommend it. Especially if you have experienced time at a liberal arts campus.
- ‘Liberal Arts’: A Lesson In Arrested Development (wnyc.org)
- Josh Radnor Talks LIBERAL ARTS, Books as Entertainment vs. Enrichment, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, Ending the Series and More (collider.com)