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Josh Radnor is best known to most as the central character in CBS’ How I Met Your Mother as Ted, the lovelorn architect searching for The One. Radnor’s first two auteur outings as star, writer and director, however – happythankyoumoreplease and the new Liberal Arts hint at a darker side to this storyteller.
In Arts, Radnor is Jesse, an idling New York college admissions counselor who returns to Kenyon College (Radnor’s real-life alma mater) upon the request of Peter (Richard Jenkins), a favorite professor reluctantly entering retirement. Jesse, 35, is admittedly re-smitten with the low buildings and many open spaces of the Ohio campus; college represents to both him and Peter a sense of safety from the real world and a promise of possibility – possibility, we sense, Jesse’s ambitions have yet to realize in the urban jungle.
And so Jesse gets to meld the best of both worlds – adult knowledge and student idealism – when he meets the ethereal Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a theater student at Kenyon and the daughter of Peter’s friends. The two embark on a sort-of relationship, despite an age difference verging on two decades and conflicting outlooks on life. But the point of liberal arts is that college is not the real world. The very enclosure meant to prep one for adult life becomes an institutionalized way of escaping said life. But the very point of Arts is that college is not the real world. The very enclosure meant to prep one for adult life becomes an institutionalized way of escaping said life.
And so at its best, a bittersweet sentimentality permeates the film. One of the great joys of Arts comes from Radnor’s commentary on works of art, particularly on the work of David Foster Wallace, the late for writer whom Radnor has frequently discussed his ardor. Olsen adds plenty of credibility to her characterization, making Zibby a mercurial woman who still has plenty to learn about the world around her. There is a romanticism to their burgeoning relationship – Jesse and Zibby communicate in the intimate age-old form of letter-writing that helps elevate what scenes of conversational flirtation that occasionally feel inert – that eventually gives to more formulaic touches, including an appearance by a shrewish faculty played by Allison Janney (herself, too, a Kenyon alum), channeling the same kind of curmudgeon essayed by Sigourney Weaver in Cedar Rapids.
Jenkins adds his expected touches of graceful humanity; Peter approaches retirement like prisoners fear returning to the outside world. And two younger actors also help texture to Radnor’s look at the good and bad of college. Zac Efron is Nat, a smart, drugging, free-thinker who has rejected the shackles of expectation. The other is John Magaro as Dean, a smart, troubled student who feels completely burdened by the same world in which Nat only finds beauty. Both performances are sharp and blessed with subtext.
And they hint at a film deeper than the one Radnor has ultimately come up with. The director seems compromised by a desire to leverage a career as a movie star once Mother concludes its run, and both of his films find him playing a variation of a lothario, to varying levels of probability. This makes a movie like Arts feel distractingly self-serving. And yet his observations through the prism of the Dean character suggest a creative force in touch with deeper, more sensitive material. I have every reason to believe that Radnor is a complicated, intellectual storyteller. We just have yet to see his defining work.