Following on from other sitcom stars who wanted to be directors (Ron Howard, David Schwimmer, Zach Braff), “How I Met Your Mother’s” Ted (Josh Radnor) brings us a story of a 35-year-old man who goes back to his old college and discovers he has a little growing up to do.
Radnor’s previous directorial effort, 2010’s Happythankyoumoreplease was a pleasant enough film about being in your thirties with the greatest surprise being the fact that Radnor got a serviceable performance out of much-maligned star Malin Akerman. Liberal Arts continues his exploration of life, ageing and relationships with Radnor playing Jesse Fisher, a drifting New York college admissions officer who gets invited back to his old Ohio university to speak at the retirement dinner of one of his old professors, Prof. Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). While there he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the daughter of one of Hoberg’s friends. She’s 19 years old, loves books and is similarly disillusioned with the trappings of modern society, finding solace in the work of classical composers. Jesse strikes up a friendship with her and they start to exchange letters when he returns to New York, but things threaten to become a little bit Lolita when she invites him back to strike up a romance with her.
A lot of people are likely to have a huge problem with the character of Jesse, though most of us may broadly identify with his outlook on life. Despite this, the way in which he carries on is a little hard to take. On arriving at Kenyon College in Ohio (Radnor’s actual alma mater) he instantly reveals a rather sickening grin and ends up lying on the grass. There are numerous moments like that which will rouse a groan even from those who claim to be devoid of any cynicism. His obsession with books and new found love of classical music is fine at first but quickly starts to feel like Radnor is trying to impress some girl by fitting in as many pseudo-intellectual references into his script as possible.
I adore the director’s most well-known character (HIMYM’s Ted) and enjoy him as a screen-presence but am wondering whether he should ever have been allowed to be left in complete control of script, direction and lead performance. There is a nice scene at the foot of a famous New York bridge which leaves you wondering whether this is Radnor’s way of just coming out and admitting his infatuation with Woody Allen, considering his most famous image is probably that Manhattan shot of Allen and Keaton below the Queensboro bridge.
Elizabeth Olsen impressed with last year’s terrific Martha Marcy May Marlene and does as well as possible with a pretty limiting role, but we’re left in no doubt that Jesse is the central character here. Richard Jenkins has been one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated actors (Oscar nomination for The Visitor aside) for years and is only now starting to get recognition, the short amount of time we spend with him as he contemplates retirement is the film’s best asset. The less said about the Zac Efron cameo the better – he plays “aloof 20-year-old crusty tree hugger who opens up Jesse’s outlook” – ugh.
Liberal Arts is by no means a terrible film, but can’t be described as anything more than passable. It’s exploration of the overall issues in play (age, confronting your place in society as you leave college) are universal and certain things will resonate with anyone who has ever attended third-level education but Radnor drops the ball by putting his annoying character at the centre of it all. If he can manage to put some distance between himself and the scripts he writes, then he’ll do OK as a film-maker. But for now, maybe get back to telling us about how you met the mother of your children…
USA / Directed By: Josh Radnor / Written By: Josh Radnor / Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Zac Efron, Allison Janney / 97mins / Drama, Comedy / Release: 14 September 2012 (USA), 5 October 2012 (UK/Ireland)