Liberal Arts Review: How I met a girl young enough to be my daughter

Liberal Arts is the second writer/director/star multi-credit for How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor, and it is a confident step-up from his inconsistent debut feature Happythankyoumoreplease. Radnor stars as 35-year-old Jesse Fisher, a man stuck in a kind of high-functioning arrested development. He has just broken up with his girlfriend, and has been invited to speak at an old professor’s retirement dinner at Ohio University. Whilst there, he will meet people who will either help him regain his lust for life, or drag him deeper into disillusionment. He is confronted by a free-spirited young man, two of his favourite professors, a troubled outsider and an enticing love interest (of sorts). The moments that Jesse shares with this ramshackle group of characters form the crux of the film, with each connection between him and someone else seeming to address a different aspect of his character.


The most significant (read: focused-upon by the movie’s detractors) encounter is with Elizabeth Olsen’s precocious Zibby, a nineteen-year-old student with a penchant for classical music and trashy vampire fiction. The pair share an obvious connection, and it’s a credit to the performances of Radnor and Olsen that the nature of their attraction remains fluid for the most part. There isn’t really an extended period where respective intentions are clear on both sides, which is one of the strengths of Radnor’s script. He can sometimes stray into smug territory – an early, jokey proclamation of Jesse remembering himself as “handsome” in his college days aims for false cockiness, but winds up seeming forced. It’s not a common occurrence, and it’s the only real criticism that I can level at what is otherwise a very assured piece of work.

The performances are uniformly very good, with Allison Janney doing a very good impression of a frosty bitch who has become jaded with her position in life. Zac Efron also deserves a mention here, as he spreads his wings in a manner that actually gave me a laugh or two; it’s a good sign for his future that he can pull this sort of thing off.

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As a leading man, Josh Radnor is still finding his feet. It can be difficult for many actors to completely emancipate themselves from a sitcom character that people recognise them for. It’s a big reason why we don’t see Matthew Perry in much else, despite the fact that he’s got some real talent. Most people look at the guy and think “Chandler Bing”. Radnor has suggested quite wittily that the difference between his movie work and his How I Met Your Mother day job is simply a beard, but he makes enough smart departures here to suggest that he has real potential for a post-TV career.

Liberal Arts has been criticised in some quarters for being a pathetic, wish-fulfillment fantasy for ageing males (I am paraphrasing a particularly moronic critic who writes for a tabloid in the UK, but he’s not the only one to suggest this). On the surface, and with some very lazy judgement, there are elements of such a film. Jesse meets a sexy nineteen-year-old who wants to have sex with him. Awesome, that’s all there is to it. Except, that’s not all there is to it. In fact, there are enough twists and turns here to make Liberal Arts a meditation on the state of the modern, overly-sensitive man who is approaching the big 4-oh. Such a character has become quite commonplace in the past decade, with Judd Apatow for example doing some fantastic work with his peripheral characters in Knocked Up and his leads in This is 40. It’s an archetype that stems from Woody Allen’s work in the 70’s and early 80’s, with his Alvy Singer proving an interesting foil to some of Radnor’s ideas and tics.

The film’s resolution is great. Ideas are neatly tied together, and whilst it may not go quite the way you expect, Liberal Arts satisfies on a realistic level that is at once grounded and life-affirming. It’s still early days for Radnor, and he is yet to truly settle down as a director, but he is smart and savvy enough in his writing to put together a solid film. His love for character and keen eye for chemistry make him one to watch. With more output of this quality, we could be looking at the next Woody Allen. Sure, it’s too soon to tell if such a comparison is worthy, but it will be very interesting to see where Josh Radnor goes from here.


What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Angelic Soul

    What that really helped the movie is the ensemble cast, all pretty great. Jenkins is, well, Jenkins (a compliment) and Zac Efron a blast, showing me that perhaps he has real acting talent.

    • David Tatlow

      It is impressive that Josh managed to put such a good cast together. The group definitely manage to lift the material, particularly Elizabeth Olsen for me, as her character could have been pretty irritating in the hands of a less skilled actor.

  2. this one had a big dose of realism with a simple and ironic theme, good movie.

    • David Tatlow

      I think it is an odd kind of realism though. There’s a big emphasis on character, but there’s an almost Odyssey-like feel about the whole thing. It’s kind of like A Christmas Carol, which sounds weird, but let me explain…Jesse is almost visited by ghosts of life past and future – the past is a mixture of a free-spirit, a partying open-mind, and a cynical lit-snob; and they all make up the kinds of attributes you feel Jesse had as a college student. In his former professors, he sees two well respected but totally different individuals. On one hand, we have an excellent man who is so in love with his job that he is reluctant to leave, whilst on the other there is a woman who has become disillusioned and has lost the romanticism of her work. Each individual forces Jesse to re-evaluate his life, and in that respect, there is a subtle undercurrent of mysticism. It’s a very clever approach, and whilst it isn’t perfectly executed, I do agree that it makes for a very good film.

  3. Mattias Loránd

    How this film has garnered any kind of positive buzz or praise is beyond me. Given its somewhat modest goal of being a low key character study, the failure is intensified. This is a film that will live or die on the depth of it’s characters and the emotional engagement they prompt from the audience. Liberal Arts has some of the most hollow characters I’ve ever seen in a movie of it’s kind. Do not confuse my criticism of this film to this review, which was good.

    • David Tatlow

      Thanks! It’s a shame you didn’t find the film enjoyable, I can definitely see how you can dislike it – it’s certainly not for everyone. I felt there was uneven character depth, but that several of the characters were well fleshed-out. As I mentioned in the review, a less talented actress would have made Zibby a shallow mess of a character. I think that several of the characters were intended to be the personnification of certain ideals, and it can be difficult to simultaneously to create a good character and a cipher of sorts. At the very least, I admire the attempt by Josh.

      It’s great to read a less favourable opinion on this movie – opposing ideas always make me want to go back and watch again! I hope you’ll keep giving your opinion on articles, you seem to have plenty to contribute.

      • Mattias Loránd

        I wanted to find this good, BUT, it sees Radnor’s character bouncing from one character to the next with no sense of cohesiveness, none of these characters or subplots connecting beyond the basic premise that they all exist within the same college structure. Admittedly, the guy does have some interesting ideas and one or two of them are slightly touched on but there’s not a drop of subtlety to anything in this picture and it all just meanders along to the inevitable “getting my life together” montage of an ending.

        And thank you, I have been here since even before the launch of the publishing site and I am a very big supporter of some of the great writing that I find here. 😉

        • Question: does the protagonist actually get his life together in the film? It would be an interesting angle to take: the inevitability that was not meant to be.

  4. The movie is set on an unnamed Ohio liberal arts college, not Ohio University. (It’s clearly Kenyon College, Radnor’s alma mater, but that is never mentioned in the movie.)

  5. 16 years is a considerable and problematic age gap for a couple, but not enough to claim that she could be his daughter. Technically, maybe. But realistically, nope. That’s why the movie works. It’s the right amount of creepiness. Besides, it’s the older person who eventually avoids any tragic development.

  6. Adjectives such as “trashy” (for vampire fiction) or “moronic” (for certain critics) are really uncalled for in an article which is also opinionated. Its use throws away any trail of objectivity the author attempted to build. It’s a shame because the article’s topic is good.

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