Talking Movies

October 5, 2012

Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor (aka Ted from How I Met Your Mother) writes, directs, and stars in a romantic comedy about a disappointed thirtysomething intoxicated anew by the college lifestyle.

Radnor plays Jesse, working in NYC as a college admissions officer; a deeply unfulfilling job. He jumps at the chance to escape back to his alma mater, a liberal arts college in Ohio, to celebrate the retirement of his mentor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). However, other protégés of Hoberg arrive for the shindig, and their improv drama student daughter Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) makes an immediate impression on Jesse. Not least because her effervescence, thoughtfulness and wit are favourably contrasted with his ice maiden English lecturer Fairfield (Allison Janney). Jesse and Zibby begin to correspond as she shares her intellectual discoveries with him and he begins to wake up from his jobsworth stupor. Jesse returns to Ohio to see Zibby but should Jesse really be looking for a more age appropriate girlfriend, like cute bookseller and Carla Gugino lookalike Ana (Elizabeth Reaser)?

Liberal Arts at times feels like Radnor looked at Manhattan disapprovingly and decided to write a wiser version of the 17 year old Mariel Hemingway character and an ethical version of the 42 year old Woody Allen character. There is a deliriously funny silent scene where the tortured Jesse uses mathematics to convince himself that a relationship with Zibby would be okay. Allen is an obvious reference point; this being the second film in two years that Radnor has written, directed and starred in. This is a cottage industry to get behind though as this is far warmer and wittier than his higher profile HIMYM co-star Jason Segel’s magnum opus Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And that’s despite a fantastically cold supporting turn by Allison Janney; channelling CSI’s Lady Heather as an aloof sexually dominant sage who teaches Jesse some hard lessons.

Radnor fills his film with hilarious sequences. The letters between Jesse and Zibby recall 84 Charing Cross Road and are both charming and very funny; as when Jesse notices that opera does make passersby look prettier. There is a sensational lengthy fight between Jesse and Zibby over a trashy vampire novel that is obviously the Twilight series (Lunar Moon?!), and an unlikely actor makes a simply spectacular cameo as an enigmatic student feeding Jesse Zen wisdom. This is also a film of great heart. Jenkins’ heartfelt regrets at retiring are compassionately treated, and Radnor as well as being a likeable sparring partner for the sparkling Olsen volunteers himself as a mentor for a brilliant but depressed student (John Magaro); during which story thread there is a dismissal of what is surely Infinite Jest that would warm Bret Easton Ellis’ heart.

To Rome with Love confirmed Allen’s rediscovery of his comic talent, but with Liberal Arts Radnor could very well have announced himself as the heir apparent.

4/5

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