‘Liberal Arts’ is a strong sophomore effort from ‘How I Met Your Mother’ star

Elizabeth Olsen does well opposite 'Liberal Arts''s star/writer/director, Josh Radnor
Elizabeth Olsen does well opposite ‘Liberal Arts”s star/writer/director, Josh Radnor

Liberal Arts – “those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person, in other words, a citizen, to know in order to take an active part in civic life and public debate.”

“Jesse Fisher” (Josh Radnor) is a graduate of a fine liberal arts college in Ohio. Like many other liberal arts majors, it didn’t really prepare him for a lucrative career.  So he’s working as a college admissions officer in New York City.

One of Jesse’s favorite professors from his college days, “Peter Hoberg” (Richard Jenkins), has finally decided to retire after 37 years at the school.  He calls Jesse and asks him to attend his retirement dinner, and to say something nice about him.  Interestingly enough, we never do get to see what Jesse said about his mentor.

Instead we see Jesse recognize and marvel at “Professor Judith Fairfield” (Allison Janney), who he professes (sorry, couldn’t resist) was his favorite professor.  Jesse also meets “Susan” and “David,” the parents of “Zibby” (Elizabeth Olsen), at Peter’s house and the four of them meet up with Zibby to share a meal.  Zibby is a 19-year-old who wants to be a drama major.

Jesse also encounters “Dean” (John Magaro), who is supposedly the smartest kid on campus, and the two share a strong interest in a particular writer.  Dean is back at school after a mental ‘meltdown’ the previous year and it’s obvious he is struggling.  Jesse ends up giving Dean his number and tells him to call if he ever needs to talk.

There is a spark between Jesse and Zibby, and they get together at a party that Jesse is steered to by “Nat” (Zac Efron), a strange character he encounters while walking on campus.  Nat doesn’t go to the college but he enjoys hanging out there.  He’s the one who suggests that Zibby and Jesse get together the next day for coffee.  That leads to an exchange of letters between the two.  Not emails, or texts, but letters written on paper with pens.

They grow closer as they exchange these letters, and soon Zibby is asking Jesse to come back and visit and she wants to hook up.  But he’s hung up on the numbers.  He’s 35, she’s 19, and in his mind they just don’t add up.  He then encounters Professor Fairfield again, and naturally one thing leads to another.

Writer/director/actor and How I Met Your Mother star Radnor is at home behind the camera and in front of it, delivering a fine performance with his sophomore effort (he’d previously written/directed 2010’s Happythankyoumoreplease). Olsen, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, holds her own with him.  Jenkins is always good as is Janney and Radnor lets them all deliver nuanced performances, as well as delivering believable storylines and realistic imagery and dialogue.

I’m not a fan of the “magical Negro” archetype and that’s pretty much what Nat is (except of course for the Negro part), but it isn’t overdone and doesn’t detract that much from what is otherwise a fine film.

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