Liberal Arts is the second film written and directed by How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor, and it’s even better than the first, Happythankyoumoreplease, which was more of an ensemble piece. While the previous film did indeed feature Radnor, it also featured a host of other recognizable personalities: Malin Åkerman, Tony Hale (Arrested Development), Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), and Kate Mara, to name a few. But the new film cleanly posits Radnor’s Jesse Fisher — a 35-year-old New York City college admissions officer — as the protagonist, and it comes to benefit from that focus. Happythankyoumoreplease wasn’t without well-written dialogue, but there were almost too many people involved there — by the end, the juices were spread too thin.
Another thing Liberal Arts does nicely is move the setting away from New York City. While opening-credits sequences of Jesse interviewing prospective students, visiting the nearby laundromat, and saying goodbye to his latest failed-relationship girlfriend pit him squarely within the claustrophobic city, most of the rest of the film is set in a decidedly different location: a lush, grassy college campus in Ohio. Liberal Arts was shot on location at Ohio’s Kenyon College, which just so happens to be Radnor’s real-life alma mater, and the school serves a similar backstory purpose for his character in the film.
Jesse, who makes a decent-enough living as an admissions officer but prefers to spend most of his waking time buried in books, is drawn back to Ohio after he receives a call from Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), one of his favorite former professors. After 37 years of teaching, Peter, a native New Yorker himself, has chosen to retire from his long-held post, and while his earliest on-screen moments suggest a man eager for the freedom of post-career life, we quickly catch on to the pain that’s eating away at Peter on the inside. The 65-year-old Jenkins, who actually had a brief cameo in Happythankyoumoreplease, turns in a tough, desperate performance here as a man who may have hanged up the towel a little too soon.
But while Jesse’s trip to Ohio may have been instigated by Peter’s invitation, he’s ultimately tempted to stay longer than he bargained for due to an entirely different person: Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), an open-minded 19-year-old sophomore at the college with a double-edged interest in drama and improv. Zibby immediately strikes us — and Jesse, too — as the type of girl Jesse would’ve been infatuated with back in his university days. She’s a sincere lover of classical music, an avid reader (although her embracing of vampire-book trilogies enrages Jesse), and a lively, informed conversationalist. Olsen, of course, recently gave a blistering breakout performance in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, but she strikes a totally separate chord here — she’s chipper and refreshing, a lot of fun to be around, but she’s also not immune to the vulnerabilities her attraction to Jesse could potentially reveal.
In addition to Zibby, Jesse interacts with a few other campus-based personalities during his stay in the Midwest: Zac Efron pops up occasionally as a night-owl named Nat, a puzzling, vaguely philosophical kid who likes to give Jesse advice on life; Allison Janney is droll, dirty, and downright sour as Judith Fairfield, Jesse’s long-time-ago professor of British Romantic Literature; and John Magaro plays the wounded Dean, a classmate of Zibby’s who is known for his toxic blend of literary smarts — when we first meet him, he’s reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for the second time — and psychological trauma. I might like this Magaro performance even more than the headlining one he gives in Not Fade Away — the teenage angst here, I think, is more stinging and specific.
There’s still a cute lightness to Liberal Arts — as there was in Happythankyoumoreplease — that’s finally both endearing and a tad too easy. The way Elizabeth Reaser’s bookstore clerk is implemented, for instance, has a forced-optimism quality to it, and it’s something that Radnor will have to work on — dictating character change in a voiced-over letter to a friend isn’t as effective as staging organic situations that can declare that change through action and behavior. But he continues to show a strength with words and speech, and he knows how to get the most out of his actors.
On the whole, I like what Radnor is attempting to do as a writer-director — he may be creating sitcom setups, but he’s using the breadth and space of the big-screen arena to give his characters and their circumstances room to grow and mature. This is especially true of Liberal Arts, since it sweeps him away from the clutter of Manhattan. There’s a serenity to the Ohio locale that is consistently pleasing, and he often gives himself and Olsen a lot of room to maneuver and interact within that backwoods environment. The scenes of them walking along the campus’s concrete paths, surrounded by tress and plants, is a lovely ode to the college experience — which, for Jesse, will forever remain a thing of the past.