“Liberal Arts” is to Josh Radnor what “The Five-Year Engagement” was to Jason Segel — a big screen extension of his small-screen “How I Met Your Mother” persona.
Radnor’s second outing as a writer/director/star has him playing an overly sensitive/overly lovelorn young professional living in nostalgia and a kind of aimless idealism.
His “Ted” is a bookish, snobby, 30something architect/college professor seeking Miss Perfect Match on TV, his Jesse in the film is a bookish, snobby 30something college admissions counselor who stumbles into Miss Perfect–She’s Entirely Too Young for You.” Quite the stretch.
Jesse’s return to the best years of his life is brought on by a visit to his Ohio college campus to help honor a beloved professor (Richard Jenkins). That hurls him into the orbit of Zibby, a smart, sexy free spirit who flirts with him in all the old fashioned ways. When he leaves, she insists that he write — “with a pen. I’d like a ‘gentleman caller.’”
Yes, she’s a drama major. In and out of class.
Jesse can never quite leave the “counselor” in him behind, trying out advice with Zibby, and with her troubled classmate Dean (John Magaro).
“A liberal arts education solves all your problems.”
But Zibby has mastered this old-soul “performance” of hers. She’s the sage one.
“Fortune never smiles on those who say no.”
Radnor generously gives most of the best lines to his supporting cast, with Jenkins landing “There’s a time in a man’s life when it hurts to do the math.”
The dialogue and relationships give “Liberal Arts” a warm if shallow glow. And Radnor can’t get out of his own way when it comes to being precious and pretentious. Local non-college hipster “Nate” (Zac Efron) becomes his wingman and confessor.
“What are your thoughts on crop circles?”
Jesse pushes untitled “great books” on the kids, and poo-poos the untitled vampire romances that they go for. Why not name the titles? Afraid the movie will feel dated when kids are watching it 30 years from now? You don’t really think that, do you?
And all through the film, Jesse does what Radnor’s Ted has been doing on TV for the better part of a decade — hesitating.
“People are disappointing.”
So are movies.
In the end, the writer in him can’t do enough to keep the audience from figuring out his reluctance to pursue this somewhat inappropriate relationship long before he does.
“I just can’t figure out if you’re advanced, or if it’s because I’m stunted.”
Way ahead of you, pal.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for sexual content including references, mature thematic material, and some teen drinking
Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney.
Credits: Written and directed by Josh Radnor. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:38