When you watch Josh Radnor as Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother, you don’t necessarily think the man is a multitalented, award-worthy filmmaker; he’s humble and nice, yes, but a genuinely skilled writer-director? Perhaps not. Radnor’s 2010 debut feature, the forced and overtly indie happythankyoumoreplease, did little to boost his dreams of cinematic stardom; however, Liberal Arts is about to change all of that, or at least it should. Between an impressively layered screenplay and a hugely talented cast, Liberal Arts is smart, crowd-pleasing entertainment that hits you like an explosion of fresh air.
Radnor, a writer-director-actor triple threat, stars as Jesse, a 35-year-old on the brink of an existential crisis. Miserably slugging his life away as a college admissions counselor in New York City, Jesse only seems to find solace in his obsession with books. He reads at work. He reads in bed. He reads at the library. He’s a man fading in reality but thriving in literature. When an old professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), calls announcing his retirement party, Jesse returns to his alma mater, Ohio’s Kenyon College, and starts to be revitalized by the youthful, liberal arts obsessed campus. Things get complicated, as they do so often in romantic comedies, when Jesse meets 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a beautiful, free spirited student who sweeps him up off his feet and starts to reignite his passionate spark that’s been fleeting with age. Can the two have a romance with such a colossal age difference? Hmm, I wonder.
Everything about Liberal Arts’ plot seems to suggest the film is contrived and clichéd (haven’t we seen the age-difference romance a thousand times?), but Radnor’s script is so flawlessly executed that nothing about this film is sappy, aged, or boring. Wisely, Radnor focuses his attention on the characters and the film becomes less about love and more about intellects; he sets up a film chock full of stereotypes (the bookworm Jesse, the free spirit Zibby, the intelligent professors, there’s a hippie stoner type [Zac Efron], and a depressed, misunderstood student [John Magaro]), but he uses his screenplay to bring out truths about life, love, and age that morph these characters into believably relatable people. When clichéd events occur, such as Zibby’s third-act bomb that threatens to destroy her fling with Jesse, they never feel contrived because you care less about the actual situation itself and more about how the situation will affect the characters at hand.
In many ways, with its casual references to books, classical music, and literary movements, Liberal Arts’ screenplay reminded me a lot of Woody Allen’s delightful Midnight in Paris. If you don’t know your Shelley from your Wordsworth, don’t worry, the film is still great, but if you do, some scenes, such as the film’s comedic centerpiece between Jesse and his old Romantic Literature professor (Allison Janney) or a montage of letter writing between Zoe and Jesse centered on Baroque composers, crackle with intellectual wit that ranges from hilariously filthy to sweetly charming. From out of nowhere, the film becomes a whole lot smarter than you ever thought it would, and as a result, Liberal Arts is a wondrous surprise and an extremely effective look at the minds of liberal arts students and professors. If you’re attending or have attended a liberal arts school, that should also add another layer to Radnor’s script since the film has its fun mocking and satirizing the liberal arts lifestyle. That’s what so genius about Liberal Arts: depending on the type of intellect you are, the film will effect, move, and stay with you differently.
Luckily, Radnor’s words are brought to vivacious life by the cast. Radnor, in particular, has never been better as the vulnerable Jesse; a man of constant mood swings, Radnor effortlessly keeps up with Jesse’s emotional shifts. I especially loved his display of humble confusion while calculating his staggering age-difference with Zibby. Veteran character actors Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney are also, as always, victorious; the sadness Jenkins increasingly shows as his character deals with retirement is quietly heartbreaking, and Janney, in the film’s previously mentioned comedic centerpiece (I’m not spoiling it here), is a laugh-out-loud tour-de-force with her snarling, theatrical banter. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Olsen is best in show. After her astonishing performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene, I was a bit nervous Olsen would be typecast as distraught teenagers in heavy dramas, but, as I expected, Liberal Arts proves Olsen is a multi-genre force to be reckoned with. From her innocent smile to those big, beautiful eyes, Olsen is an intoxicating presence and it’s hard not to be emotionally seduced by her. Every time she’s on screen, Olsen is a shimmering light, further drawing you in to her infectious warmth. After watching the film, I was completely smitten with her and I think you will be too.
To end, I draw back to Midnight in Paris, a film that, like Liberal Arts, combined a highly intelligent script with an immensely talented cast. Midnight in Paris ended up using these strengths to Oscar-winning effects, and while Liberal Arts may not be showered in the same critical praise, I think it’s just as deserving of a writing nomination; it easily has one of the smartest and best original screenplays of the year. Congratulations, Radnor, you’re on your way.
Review by Zack Sharf