Review: Poetic Justice Is Served in Insightful LIBERAL ARTS

Actor Josh Radnor is mostly known as hopeless romantic Ted Mosby on the hit show, “How I Met Your Mother,” though he garnered much more deserved attention for his first feature, “HappyThankYou-MorePlease” (not a typo, I promise), which won the Audience Award for Drama at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The central theme in “HTYMP” is the hardships of falling in love as an adult. Life would certainly be so much more pleasant if finding “the one” was as easy as movies make it seem to be, no?

Echoing “HTYMP,” Radnor carries on the “love sucks” theme in his second feature,"Liberal Arts." He plays Jesse Fisher, an admissions officer at what appears to be a community college in New York; we know it’s a small school because every prospective student he meets to discuss their educational direction seems to care nothing about it. The only exciting thing in Fisher’s current life is chasing thieves who steal his laundry (mere feet away from him) at the laundromat.  Things are not what he imagined 13 years after graduating college with a B.A. in English.

One night, Fisher gets a call from his second, er, first favorite professor from college, Peter Hoberg (the incredibly talented Richard Jenkins). Hoberg is retiring and wants some of his favorite students to attend his goodbye dinner and say nice things about what a wonderful teacher he was (“Lies,” he calls them). When Fisher arrives in town, he meets Hoberg’s friend’s daughter Zibby (the gifted Elizabeth Olsen, from “Martha Marcy May Marlene”), who’s currently a student at his former college. Sparks fly immediately and an old-fashioned romance begins; we say “old-fashioned” because instead of texting one another, they hand-write powerful letters on how classical music and prominent poets’ work make them feel about life. This is where Fisher’s degree means something to the film — he’s very, very obsessive about the books other people read.

Because Fisher spends most of the film on campus, most of his time is spent with students, misguided by dark things a famous writer had once written. What makes “Liberal Arts” so admirable is its honesty  about “the real world.” Even as a fully grown adult, life is still trying to work itself out. S**t happens, laundry gets stolen and you may never turn out to be that famous person you once dreamed about or find your soulmate at 22. These are the things students aren’t ever prepared for. This is one of those films that tells you about real grown-up connections that you won’t see in "Twilight" … and that good-natured jab is only given because there’s a brilliant discussion about the book in the film (“Twilight” alum Elizabeth Reaser also happens to co-star).

Supporting characters include Allison Janey as Fisher’s former professor who taught British Literature — and now that Fisher is now longer her student, she doesn’t have to pretend to be nice to him when he runs into her. There’s also a downright awesome surprise cameo, or at least that’s what we’re going to call it since it’s not advertised in the trailer. The casting of said gentleman is genius — it’s nice to see this young man step away from his teen idol status and really tackle some challenging roles (and, in this case, harmlessly absurd ones).

Like Vincent Gallo (“Buffalo ‘66,” “The Brown Bunny”), Radnor writes, directs and stars in his films. Unlike Gallo, Radnor has a heart (a gooey one, at that) and doesn’t use his actresses for extracurricular activities. He’s fair and shows that both men and women have their equal quarrels with the crazy things we do to find a connection with someone. Radnor is more of a Ben Affleck kind of guy — his eye is as sharp behind the camera as he is catching in front. (Did you know he’s 38? He looks at most 28. Time has been very kind to you, Mr. Radnor.) Ultimately, “Liberal Arts” is poetic justice for the romantics.

Originally published on