***1/2 (out of four)
The line between Josh Radnor and his “How I Met Your Mother” character Ted Mosby continues to disintegrate.
In “Liberal Arts,” which marks a big step up from Radnor’s writing-directing debut “Happythankyoumoreplease,” Radnor plays Jesse, who has more than a little in common with Ted. He’s a New York resident with ties to Ohio (like Radnor himself). He’s incredibly judgmental in his tastes, which skew a bit snobby. And he’s constantly off balance regarding his work and love life, which both unfold in the context of a sense that he’s not in the place he’s supposed to be by this age.
Yet Radnor doesn’t allow “Liberal Arts” to turn into a quirky male fantasy as 35-year-old Jesse bonds with a 19-year-old college sophomore named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). Years ago, Professor Peter Hoberg (always-great Chicago native Richard Jenkins) was Zibby’s mom’s camp counselor. Now Jesse has returned from his work in New York college admissions to his Ohio alma mater to support Peter as he retires after 37 years. The occasion’s not especially happy; Peter’s speech quickly goes from amusingly self-deprecating to sad. The visit gets much sunnier as Jesse and Zibby bond, finding in each other kindred spirits separated in age by 16 years.
Radnor’s far from the first writer-director to examine the romanticism of youth or feeling younger than your birth certificate indicates you are. In “Liberal Arts,” he’s sweetly honest about the college experience and Jesse’s emotionally dangerous level of nostalgia. Despite Radnor’s affinity for contrived names (in “Happythankyoumoreplease” it was Kate Mara’s character, Mississippi), Zibby never seems contrived herself. Olsen’s fantastic in the role, making Zibby excitable, passionate, deceptively mature yet not exactly fully formed. When a very amusing hippie (Zac Efron) acts as wingman for Jesse and encourages a coffee date with Zibby, Jesse suggests 9 a.m. She counters with 11:30 a.m. She shows up late smelling of beer, drinks his coffee and then pukes in the bathroom. The mutual infatuation develops in spite of the fact Jesse probably hasn’t been drunk-sick in a decade.
The film captures the intellectual and romantic sensibilities of college while admitting students’ shortsightedness. (I prefer it to the good-but-not-great “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” whose portrait of high school better convinces on the page.) Rather than deliver another cutesy movie in which everyone exists on a similar plane, Radnor’s opened himself up to different perspectives and how insufferable an extended existence of collegiate over-analysis can be. This is also a movie about one man’s relationship with art—particularly books and music—and the impact that has on a vulnerable mind. Sometimes you want high culture; sometimes you want trash. “Liberal Arts” teaches the merits of both in a life lived in the present, appreciative of the past.
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