In How I Met Your Mother‘s season 5 episode “Robots vs. Wrestlers”, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) decides to recite a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, entitled “Friendship”, to his close group of friends as a meaningful statement on his love for them. Of course, since Ted is in a New York City bar and his friends more than likely passed their college literature classes by inches rather than miles, his friends label his highfalutin tastes “douchey”—which for the most part isn’t true, save for when Ted decides to recite The Divine Comedy in its original Italian—and they make fart noises to cut him off. Ted, who earlier in the season took a job teaching at Columbia, is an academic at his core, despite the madcap antics he so frequently gets involved in with his “gang”. More often than not, he would love nothing more than to sit back and read literary journals than have a beer at McLaren’s.
Now, this is a review of the film Liberal Arts. It’s written, directed, and stars Radnor, yes, but ostensibly How I Met Your Mother has nothing to do with it. Much like Zach Braff before him, Radnor has taken the auteur route when he isn’t starring in one of America’s most popular sitcoms; Liberal Arts marks his second feature, following 2010’s happythankyoumoreplease. Both of his films thus far have focused on similar themes: middle-age frustrations, life in New York City, intellectualism, and the search for love.
Fans of How I Met Your Mother can now see why I brought up the show at the beginning of this review. All of those topics are what drive Ted Mosby to do the things he does, especially love. Right from the beginning of Liberal Arts, it’s uncanny how much Radnor’s character Jesse Fischer resembles Ted: he lives in New York (which he calls “the greatest city in the world”) but is from Ohio, he works at a college, and he’s single despite his seeming affability. When his girlfriend leaves him at the beginning of the movie, she asks him if a particular book belongs to him or her, and he responds in the words of a martyr: “It’s mine, but you can have it.” One half expects Barney Stinson to kick in the door and start dropping statements about how “legendary” his and Ted—I mean, Jesse’s—night on the town will be now that he’s single.
For all the freedom that the auteur route can provide an actor ensconced in a pervasive role in a television program, Radnor has surprisingly decided to play it safe, resting comfortably in the confines of Ted Mosby. While this isn’t inherently bad—despite the divisiveness of Ted as a character, plenty still root for him—it’s disappointing to see someone with a witty intellect like Radnor’s not utilize it to a greater capacity. Try though he may for a Woody Allen vibe—which there is only a meager bit of in Liberal Arts—Radnor succeeds only in bringing Ted Mosby to the big screen. Liberal Arts is actually a pretty good movie; it’s enjoyable, it has some good insights into adulthood and the importance of the liberal arts education, and a good deal of the dialogue is sharp and intelligent, which is especially nice here since there’s no laugh track to undercut the efficacy of the jokes.
However, for all their similarities, Jesse and Ted aren’t a perfect match. Jesse, apparently friendless in his New York life where he works as an admissions counselor, jumps on the chance to visit his alma mater in Ohio—Kenyon College, Radnor’s real-life former school—for a retirement dinner held in honor of one of his favorite professors, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins, giving a strong performance in the short amount of time he’s allotted). Jesse is Ted left completely to his sad-sack devices; he’s dour and existentially challenged for the majority of this movie. For him, love leads only to boredom, evidenced by the ennui with which he leaves his girlfriend at the beginning of the movie.
Upon arriving in Ohio, it’s as if he’s found his true home in the liberal arts life. He smiles, he gazes widely with wonder; the confines of the Big Apple have finally escaped him, and now he has room to breathe. And despite how little he seems to care about finding someone, it’s not long before a young student at Kenyon, Zibby (Elizabeth Olson), catches his eye. Despite their 16 year age gap, they hit it off almost instantaneously. But while there are no statutory concerns with that age span, Jesse feels far from comfortable in his nostalgia-driven crush.
All the while this romance grows, Jesse encounters a former professor (the icily funny Allison Janney) and a young student that reminds him very much of himself (John Magaro). He meets that young student, Dean, after catching him reading David Foster Wallace’s The Infinite Jest. Foster Wallace, who gave a famous commencement speech at Kenyon entitled “This is Water”, seems to be the inspiration for the message of this film.
This message is starkly and humorously depicted when Jesse stumbles upon a Twilight-esque vampire novel in Zibby’s room. For such a smart woman, Jesse reasons, there’s no way she could possibly read this book. After taking it upon himself to slog his way through the dreck of the novel, he confronts her. She tells him that she likes to read the book—despite how horrible it is—because she enjoys it. When he tells her that she should be reading the great works of literature, and she responds by saying she’d rather read something she enjoys, he responds, “You’re not supposed to like them [the great works of literature]!”
Foster Wallace had quite a lot to say about people like Jesse in his Kenyon commencement speech. Jesse is so caught up in the liberal arts clichés that he fails to grasp what the true purpose of a liberal arts education is: to instill in people an “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.” While Dante, Proust, and even Foster Wallace have all produced great works of literature that are worth reading, to value them solely for the intellectual challenge they present is not enough. In fact, it might mean nothing at all.
As Jesse argues with Zibby about “good” books and “bad” books, he fails to see that he’s being taught something more valuable than anything he learned from his professors or the word-dense books they assigned him. Zibby is raising his awareness of the world, of living a true life, and he fails to fully engage her in that discourse; he, based on principles of decency (whatever those are), won’t let himself fall in love with her. Come the movie’s end, she agrees that it probably would have been a bad idea for them to sleep together, but had they done it, Jesse would have made a necessary sacrifice of his bookishness for the real value of education: being a better person, both to oneself and to other people.
As Jesse walks away at the end of the film, having learned a great deal from his brief stint with Zibby, Foster Wallace’s poignant words ring deeply true:
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
Jesse, lost in the “rat race” of New York City, has finally learned. He needed no books, no orations by professors in crowded lecture halls—those are not incidental to a liberal arts education, but they alone do not an educated person make. What made him free was Zibby; Elizabeth Olson’s graceful and poignant performance is the crux of this film, and she absolutely nails it. She makes it easy to forget how easily Radnor defaulted into the Ted Mosby archetype. The challenges she poses to the character of Jesse—and by extension Ted—have yet to be presented in How I Met Your Mother, and it’s a major breath of fresh air to see her stand up to him. At one point, Jesse asks her, “I can’t tell [if we have good chemistry] because if you’re advanced or if I’m stunted.” The answer to Jesse’s false dichotomy is simple: it’s both.
The title of Foster Wallace’s commencement address comes from a little joke he tells at the beginning of the speech:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”
Foster Wallace uses this little joke to mean that rarely do humans actually perceive the environment around them: people tacitly assume “the water” of life, going about their daily business without any sense of real freedom and awareness. And when Jesse walks away at the end of Liberal Arts, one can practically see him repeating those words to himself: “This is water. This is water.” Radnor may be having a difficult time breaking free from the character he’s performed for almost nine seasons of television, but at least that character is now finally growing up.
Included on the disc are a few bonus features, including an IFC featurette on the film and some deleted scenes.