Did someone say pet project? Josh Radnor, The 'I' in How I Met Your Mother, directs, writes, produces and stars in this nice but too nice romantic drama. An extension of the bookish character he plays in the series he's best known for, if Radnor is going to break away from Ted Mosby, he's going to have to try a little harder.
Radnor plays Jesse, a thirty-five-year old who hasn’t been able to shake off the feeling that his best years were his college years. With his admissions job at a NY college not doing the business and his live-in girlfriend chucking him, Jesse's going through a mid-life crisis he wasn't expecting for another ten years. What perks him up is an invitation to attend the retirement party of his favourite professor, Richard Jenkins, back at his alma matter and what excites him further is the glad eye he gets from enthusiastic nineteen-year-old student Zibby (Olsen). Romance blossoms despite Jesse's reluctance to get involved with someone so many years his junior.
Liberal Arts is full of characters who like to talk about themselves at length, and your enjoyment/annoyance will depend on how insightful/annoyingly cute you find Radnor's musings on life, youth and growing up. His snobbish attitude to what we can only assume is Twilight may irk fans ("It's the worst book ever written in English.") but he fails to see he's dealing with, and has the same values as, the virginal/innocent themes in Stephanie Meyers’ phenomenon. The movie is extremely good-natured – Jesse goes to lengths to ensure he puts a smile on a depressed outsider – but everything happens far too easily for him.
We all get nostalgic for our recent past (John Hughes built a career on it) and Radnor explores the pleasures and the pitfalls of attempting to relive our formative years. All plots here concern itself with this theme as everyone is clinging on to something. After thirty-seven years, Jenkins' prof announces his retirement and immediately regrets it. Olsen, who admits she's old-fashioned, holds onto 'archaic' values like college virginity. Allison Janney's cynical romantics professor likes to remain hard-hearted because you only get hurt otherwise. Janney's a welcome addition as she's here to blow all this nicey-niceness out of the water but sadly, she’s underused.
Radnor takes his eye off the ball too. In being a mentor to depressed student John Magaro, tending to Jenkins' insecurity and listening to the bizarre mysticism of Zac Efron's unshaven dude (we can go ahead and assume he's not real), the romance between Jesse and Olsen gets lost. Maybe the real romance is between Jesse and college but either one needed a bigger oomph.
Radnor will get better. His characters need to be pushed harder and his dialogue will have to be a lot less self-indulgent but there is a lot of charm to this, his second effort behind the camera.
Review by Gavin Burke | 16:37 | Monday 27th August 2012 | Movie Review