Writer-director Josh Radnor transcends 2010’s HappyThankYouMorePlease with Liberal Arts, a literate, college-set flick whose themes of aging are paired with discourse on cultural discernment. A 35-year-old admissions counselor, Jesse (Radnor) leaves New York to visit his alma mater, Ohio’s Kenyon College, where he strikes up a courtship with old-souled Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore whose urbane cultural cachet is padded with vampire romance novels. Having bonded with his barely legal crush over the likes of Beethoven, Jesse tells Zibby her current guilty pleasure is “the worst book ever written in English,” and that a lot of what’s wrong with our country is due to people liking these “very bad things.” “It’s not Tolstoy, but it’s not television, and it makes me happy,” Zibby retorts. The dangling question, of course, is where Radnor’s effort falls on the trash-to-treasure meter. As it weaves the romanticism of academia with the disappointments of growing up and growing old, Liberal Arts initially takes an objective look at how refinement can shape one’s happiness, offering arguments for and against a certain educated elitism. But as the scale slowly tips toward embracing the escape of the lowbrow, there’s a slight sense the movie is writing its own get-out-of-jail-free card.
Which isn’t to say it needs to account for a whole lot of wrongdoing. There’s a clichéd redundancy to the assessment of discontent, which spreads from Jesse to a retiring professor (Richard Jenkins) to a bitter cougar (Allison Janney) to a suicidal student (John Magro), and an aside with Zac Efron’s new-age stereotype feels far too indie-comic-diversion. But Liberal Arts is, in many ways, a lovely little film, boasting well-scripted passages, enveloping compositions, and a palpable enthusiasm for cherished things past. Anyone who loved college will find kindred joy in Jesse’s journey back to school, a rural life detour that’s lushly filmed to juxtapose Manhattan’s bustle, and nimbly scored with chimes and strings to boost that rediscovery spark. Unremarkable but solid, Radnor’s performance is nicely matched with what he gets from Olsen, who continues to prove herself an invaluable on-screen asset. In a movie highly focused on the stress of gracefully graduating from one life stage to the next, Zibby embodies the lowest and freest tier of open-mindedness, and Olsen amply imbues her with smart, effortless zest. The character’s college career includes acting in an improv group, and her explanation of its M.O. of “saying yes” introduces a motif, wherein “yes” is seen as a privilege of the young.
Along with Janney, Radnor is himself a Kenyon College alum, and the personal connection surely aids in the film’s air of genuineness, in specific regard to cultural consumption and an innate collegiate spirit. More than seven whole seasons of How I Met Your Mother, Liberal Arts provides a peek into what makes Radnor tick, and what he cares about outside his mainstream-targeted sitcom. It’s conceivable that, just like Jesse, he has soft spots for books, handwritten letters, and Massenet, and he gets to vent a bit of that with his latest project. It’s not Tolstoy, but it’ll do.