Like Zach Braff before him, Josh Radnor stars in a successful, often inventive sitcom and moonlights as a sensitive writer-director. Also like Braff, Radnor’s cinematic sensibility draws on his sitcom work, through a more melancholy indie-movie prism. As Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother, Radnor trades in idealism, romantic enthusiasm, and occasionally insufferable pretension. As Jesse Fisher in Liberal Arts, Radnor’s second feature as writer, director, and star, he tends toward nostalgia for happier college days, romantic ennui, and more than occasional insufferable pretension.
Jesse works as a college admissions counselor in New York City. His latest relationship ends early in the film; we see that he’s the sort of sensitive ex-boyfriend who, when confronted with a “Yours or mine?” question about a book, will say, with a touch of generous-seeming hope, “Mine, but you can have it if you want.” Before he agrees to return to his alma mater in Ohio to celebrate his favorite professor, Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), he fakes checking his schedule; he knows—and you know—that he has nothing else to do.
When Jesse reaches the campus, he doesn’t have much more to do, apart from attend that retirement dinner, but he nonetheless feels more at home, soaking up the youthful energy of his surroundings. The movie treats the liberal arts college campus like Woody Allen’s version of Manhattan: it’s witty, beautiful, full of promise, and cut off from the rest of the world. At its best and most resonant, the film portrays upscale college life as an experience so idyllic and nurturing that it can’t possibly prepare you for the disappointments of real life.
Returning to school, then, allows Jesse to stumble across the kind of magically promising romantic partner that seems to make more sense on campus. In his case, it’s Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a current student and the daughter of Hoberg’s friends. Despite their 16-year age difference (in one amusing shot, we see Jesse literally doing the math to figure it out), the two of them connect. They walk around campus, share ideas, talk about growing up—though they refrain from throwing themselves into each other’s arms, at least at first. They decide to keep in touch when Jess goes back to the city, with Zibby—a remarkable but also predictable girl, without discernable flaws—conveniently eschewing the technological touchstones of her generation, agreeing to hand-write letters back and forth with Jesse. Their exchanges accumulate volumes of earnestness and cutesiness, eventually, embarrassingly gushy.
Of course, they decide to pursue a real relationship, and much of Liberal Arts deals with Jesse’s discomfort over doing so. He and Zibby move from looking at each other with gentle longing to arguing over the merits of books as entertainment: She says, “I like it!” He says, “That’s no reason to read something.”
Throughout this wispy, low-key love story, Radnor evokes the passage of time: the way that life seems full of possibilities early on and then, as Jesse points out, you leave campus and “decisions get made.” Hoberg, about to retire, confesses that he has “never felt not-19,” and warns Jesse not to wait around for signs of adulthood. “Nobody feels like an adult,” he intones.
The movie has lots of similarly smart observations and good lines, but not many good scenes. Instead, Radnor’s writing favors winding, articulate but dramatically inert conversations. While a 19-year-old girl giving an informed, rational argument as to why a 35-year-old guy would be philosophically correct to sleep with her has a novelty of sorts, it also has the spontaneity of a dissertation defense, perhaps because of the movie’s transparency in offering alternate romantic partners for Jesse.
It’s also possible that the wanness comes from an incongruity of “message.” As Jesse learns to “act his age,” his changes don’t really register; he may idealize college life early in the movie, but he never seems more than halfway convinced that he could relive it. Between Liberal Arts and happythankyoumoreplease, Radnor’s filmmaking so far stakes out talky, neurotic Woody Allen-ish territory, but without Allen’s sharper comic instincts. For that matter, Radnor could use the energy and inspiration we see each week in How I Met Your Mother, which chronicles disappointment and hope more convincingly.