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Most of us know and love Josh Radnor from the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother in which he plays hopeless romantic Ted Mosby. However, in recent years Radnor has also tried his hand at writing and directing movies, making his debut with the curiously titled Happythankyoumoreplease (2010), followed two years later by Liberal Arts (2012) which is the subject of this review.
Radnor stars in Liberal Arts as Jesse Fischer, a student admissions officer from New York who is invited to attend the retirement dinner of his ‘second-favourite’ professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) at an unspecified college in Ohio. There, he meets 19-year-old drama student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), to whom he instantly finds himself attracted. After Jesse returns home, the pair continue to stay in touch via a series of handwritten letters and bond over classical music.
Jesse soon finds himself faced with a moral dilemma. Until he met Zibby, his life had been slowly deteriorating due to the breakdown of a long-term relationship and a general disillusionment with his lot. Suddenly, this smart, spirited girl reminds him how much he’d loved his student days and offers an element of escapism from the drudgery of his adult life; yet, he ultimately struggles to reconcile himself with the fact that she is sixteen years his junior. When he reveals at a party that he graduated from the very same college in the 1990s, for example, Zibby’s room mate helpfully chips in “That’s when we were born.” Awkward.
On the one hand, Liberal Arts ticks a lot of boxes. Zac Efron, for one thing, makes a great cameo performance in a markedly atypical role as Nat—the loveable, tee-total hippy who brings Jesse and Zibby together. There is also an inspired exchange between the two main characters in which Zibby fumes about Jesse’s snobby attitude toward a book that he is horrified to find in her room. Although the name of the book is never disclosed, it may be inferred from various comments, as well as the black cover and the allusion to a trilogy, that Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight is the offending title. I must confess to having been involved in such a debate myself a number of times before.
Overall, there is something rather unsatisfying about this movie that is quite hard to identify specifically. It is, perhaps, a little slow moving: it tries a bit too hard to be alternative; and I found the ending kind of trite in a ‘this-is-how-to-live-your-life-properly’ way. This might sound a bit harsh but as a result I eventually came to view Radnor’s character in Liberal Arts as Ted Mosby without the jokes.