Columbus, Ohio, native Josh Radnor is best known for his lead role in the TV sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” But in his spare time, Radnor also indulges in multi-faceted filmmaking. Liberal Arts, his second film, has his name all over the credits as writer, co-producer, director and star of this tale of coming to grips with how your life has turned out after college, and how his character, and others in the film, deal with the disappointment and loneliness of it all. Virtually every character in this exploration is angst-ridden and looking for something different.
Radnor plays Jesse, a college recruiter in New York City. At the age of 35, he’s invited back to his Alma Mater, Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio… where most of this was filmed…to attend a retirement party for one of his favorite professors. Jesse is bored with his job, and has just split with his latest girl friend, so he welcomes the opportunity to return to the scene of his happiest times. As played by the great Oscar-nominated character actor Richard Jenkins, he embodies everything any student might love about a favorite professor. The prof introduces Jesse to the daughter of friends, a 19-year-old sophomore named Elizabeth who goes by the nickname of “Zibby.” She’s a drama major, but then, isn’t everyone these days. Olsen, the younger sister of the Olsen Twins, is getting high marks for her dramatic work in indie films, such as the intense Martha Marcy May Marlene, and she’s fine here as well.
During his weekend in Kenyon, Josh encounters another former professor, a dour romance literature teacher as played by Allison Janney, from TV’s “The West Wing,” and not coincidentally another Kenyon alumnus. And, of course, what would a college tale be without the presence of a “resident zany.” In this case, a guy named Nat who wears a funny hat so you will know he’s the “resident zany.” Zac Effron plays this small role, trying to expand his acting horizons. Is Nat a real person, or an imaginary one man Greek chorus who comments on Jesse’s life? You be the judge.
So already you might guess Liberal Arts sounds like the typical story of a return to the past, before heading back to the future. And just like such a film you may also surmise that parts of it are too cute, too sad, and too intellectually contrived. That’s true, but it does have fleeting moments of genuine warmth, and at least one laugh-out-loud line that is worth remembering. It’s said by Radnor to Janney, and you’ll know it when you hear it.
I also imagine the film will appeal more to those who are currently closer to the experience, such as college students and recent grads. But it does derive pleasure from the talented cast. And Radnor has promise as a multi-tasking filmmaker. But the one thing I enjoyed the most about Liberal Arts is how well it extols the joys of small-town midwestern campus life. And for that, I’m glad I saw it.
The PG-13 rated Liberal Arts is currently showing at Clifton’s Esquire Theatre.