What’s so great about college? According to Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), it’s the fact that “You can go up to everyone here and say, ‘I’m a poet,’ and no one will punch you in the face.” Ironically, Radnor’s sophomore attempt at directing, producing, and writing his own film is his own way of letting the world know that he’s a “poet.” While the film includes insightful commentary on the necessity of letting go of the past, the majority of the plot is cliché, and thus, it is clear that Radnor is also worried about having someone “punch him in the face” for taking a risk. While “Liberal Arts” is certainly a major improvement over the catastrophe known as his first film “HappyThankYouMorePlease,” it ultimately becomes confusing due to the separate plotlines’ inability to mesh.
“Liberal Arts” begins when 35-year-old admissions counselor (Radnor) falls in love with Zibby, a confident but naïve 19-year-old student (Elizabeth Olsen) when he returns to his alma mater to deliver a speech at his favorite professor’s retirement party. Following this initial set-up is a disjointed series of scenes that persists until the movie’s end.
The disparity of topics makes the movie seem as if Radnor attempted to stuff every idea that he had about romantic suffering in a long-distance relationship—and a 16-year age gap to complicate it further—into a single movie. Unfortunately, while the scenes themselves are filled with witty banter, it goes under-appreciated as all of the random plotlines are too disjointed and unrelated to be written in a feature together. While moments with the wonderful Richard Jenkins and the scene-stealing Allison Janney are great in isolation, in the context of the whole film, their scenes distract from the main thrust. Even the unexpectedly hilarious Zac Efron, who plays Nat, a proverb-spewing college student who gives off the cool L.A.-hippie vibe and never appears onscreen without offering Jesse irrelevant advice makes the viewer wish that “Liberal Arts” could be divided into multiple short films instead.
Although the plot seems to have been forgotten altogether as the film progresses, there are some memorable moments. Namely, there are two great scenes in the movie: One of which is when Jesse and Zibby write to each other about the power of classical music and its effect of making one aware of things in life that are taken for granted. “Grace is neither time nor place-dependent; all we need is the right soundtrack,” he muses. When Jesse stops and raises his arms above his head after abruptly pausing from a jog in Washington Square Park to suddenly appreciate the fact that he has hands, the music soars and the camera pans to the sky, wonderfully tying together dialogue and production. The other scene that had the potential for great development is when Jesse tries to put the 16-year age gap in context. “When I was 19, she was 3,” he calculates on paper, covering his face with his hands. But then he picks up his pen again. “When I am 87, she will be 71.” That’s more than enough to convince Jesse that this long-distance, age-inappropriate relationship is okay to pursue, and the film disappointingly stops the emotional development there.
Although fans of Radnor’s hit TV show “How I Met Your Mother” will rejoice in the witty banter, the subpar execution of the dialogue highlights how the overall potential of “Liberal Arts” never comes to fruition. When Jesse sends a copy of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” without prior reference to Zibby as an apology, it becomes sadly obvious that the movie is just a showcase of Radnor’s disjointed interests desperately stuffed into a single 97-minute feature.