Like several of his huggable cast mates on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, Josh Radnor moonlights during the hit show’s hiatus. Embraced on the film-festival circuit in 2010 for writing, directing, and starring in the quirky Happythankyoumoreplease, he reprises the triple credit in his follow-up romantic comedy Liberal Arts.
Co-starring with Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, and Zac Efron, he spins a wistful love poem to the heady pleasures of academia, and the sensitive, easily damaged souls who seek solace there. The scenes in his sophomore film are divided between New York, where his character works as a college admissions counselor, and the picturesque Ohio campus of his own alma mater. Kenyon College provides the sets for the moral dilemma facing Jesse, his 35-year-old onscreen alter ego, after he meets Olsen’s precocious 19-year-old coed, Zibby.
Expressing platonic romance ― in its budding stage they exchange handwritten letters ― proves easiest for the pair onscreen, and for Radnor behind the camera. The film’s high point is his voice-over musings on the classical music CD she made for him, adding its own glow to a montage of New York street scenes.
Radnor’s dialogue is as lyrical as an introductory class on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. But as much as Jesse struggles not to be led into temptation, Liberal Arts’s deeper worries are with outgrowing lessons learned in school, and aging into life’s postgraduate messiness.
The always-reliable Jenkins and Janney, as tenured faculty members near the ends of their brittle, bitter careers, provide cynical balance to the film’s more romantic longings.
As his film moves from festivals to mainstream venues, Radnor enhances his amiably understated wit as a leading man with budding strides as a writer and director. He may sometimes stray too close to a literal definition of a “sophomore film,” but he still captures what it feels like to fall in love with ideas. And the sight of children of all ages, reluctant to become adults as their borrowed time ticks away, will be instantly recognizable to liberal arts graduates everywhere.