The next step is never an easy one but Josh ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Radnor’s sit-com origins could well be behind him.
Lead actors in TV sit-coms are a dime a dozen. But, recently, they seem to have ideas above their station. After all, it’s not like we ever saw Ted Dansontry his hand at directing. But then Scrubs’ Zach Braff wowed us with Garden State while Friends’ David Schwimmer reached new levels of mature with 2010’s Trust. So with Friends and Scrubs no longer with us we find ourselves happy in the company of the geeks from The Big Bang or the kooky cuteness ofNew Girl. Of course the show most like Friends is How I Met Your Motherwhere writer and director of Liberal Arts, Josh Radnor, plays the loveable Ted. So can Ted, sorry, Josh, rise to similar heights of creativity as Braff and Schwimmer before him?
With life not quite going according to plan for Jesse (Radnor) in New York, he’s been dumped and doesn’t much like his job, he jumps at the chance to return to his Ohio university to send off his favourite Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). While there he meets the free-spirited Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) who soon opens his eyes to things more deep and meaningful than the books he is normally buried in. Their obvious age gap might be a problem but they’ll teach one another a thing or two about life.
While you can take Ted, sorry Josh, out of How I Met Your Mother it seems you cannot take How I Met Your Mother out of Ted, sorry JOSH, damn it! But, this is no bad thing. While Radnor plays exactly the same Ted we all know and love in Liberal Arts it somehow fits better with the pseudo-intellectual surroundings of the film than it does in How I Met Your Mother. In the show, Ted is a bit of an insufferable know-it-all who you tolerate thanks to his more amusing friends. We’re looking at you Neil Patrick Harris. Here he’s a think-he-knows-it-all making him endlessly more likeable when towards the mid-section he begins to realise that much of what he thinks about life has prevented him from truly moving on from his college days.
Jesse, like Radnor the writer and director, romanticises everything. From New York, which he seems to tolerate more than love, to his college days, literature, music and even his romantic literature class with the cold and sarcastic Professor Judith Fairfield (Alllison Janney). Despite being in his thirties Jesse has a tendency to view the past through rose-tinted glasses. Radnor handles the direction with a delicacy. From the contrast of Ohio’s green to the grey’s of New York to the importance of well-worn-dog-eared books, everything in Liberal Arts feels, well liberal. There are no flashy camera tricks, but rather a director who comes from an acting back-ground and therefore is fully aware that films of this ilk depend more on the actors selling the story than anything else. As such Liberal Arts works in the same vein as Garden State and The Graduate. Indeed the parallels to those films here are clear but it feels fresh at the same time. Jesse is aware of the pit-falls he has allowed himself to slip into and yet seems powerless to resist them. That is until Zibby (don’t worry it’s short for Elizabeth rather than a stolen Muppet name) informs him that sometimes in life you just have to say “Yes!” Crucially though, Jesse must learn when the right time is.
Much of the endearing quality of the film is down to the performances. Yes Radnor plays Ted but the rest of the cast allow him to do so. Richard Jenkins, as usual making any film he is in at least 33% better, is on typically warm/sarcastic form. He is an actor able to say so much with so few lines you wonder why writers even bother. Just put him in front of a camera and let him do his thing and here is no exception. Elizabeth Olsen, so hot right now afterMartha Marcy May Marlene, brings that wonderful sense of youth-knowledge to proceedings. As Zibby she projectsconfidence but when pushed is achingly insecure and shy. If anything everyone else is doing such fine work you are willing to just let Ted be Ted.
Liberal Arts is a hugely cute and enjoyable film. The characters feel real but in a delightfully eccentric way. If you haven’t reached that point where a mid-life crisis seems like a good idea then Liberal Arts might prepare you for it. If you have passed it, it will make you smile with pleasure and knowing. This is one education that is worth paying attention to.