Maybe it’s for the best that I never saw happythankyoumoreplease, the ensemble comedy that marked How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor’s debut as a writer and director. The consensus was that it resembled an uninspired sitcom, and I think we’ve all seen enough of those. But Radnor’s sophomore effort, Liberal Arts, is an exuberant, heartfelt concoction, the kind of sunny comedy that’s good for the soul. Would I have bothered with it if I’d seen (and been disappointed by) Radnor’s other movie? I don’t know! I’ll never know! The near-miss haunts me!
Radnor stars as Jesse Fisher, a 35-year-old alumnus of an unnamed Ohio university who returns to his alma mater to honor his favorite professor, a self-deprecating old hippie named Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), on the occasion of his retirement. On campus again after all these years, Jesse experiences the rush of happy, whitewashed memories that often accompany such a visit, and he feels nostalgic for his carefree and intellectually stimulating college days.
While there, he meets a current student, 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), whose love of literature, learning, and language rivals his own. They begin a correspondence after Jesse returns to New York (where he works in a college admissions office) — and here, for a while, it’s not clear what the movie’s story is going to be. You assume a romance, or something like it, will emerge between Jesse and Zibby. But how does Prof. Hoberg fit into things? What about the frosty romantics professor (Allison Janney) Jesse always admired? What function is served by the two of Zibby’s classmates who are introduced — Dean (John Magaro), a depressed bookworm, and Nat (Zac Efron), a knitted-cap-wearing, Zen-spouting stoner?
Nothing about the answers to these questions is revelatory, and the seeming lack of direction in the plot only lasts for a few scenes before we get our bearings and start to understand approximately where we’re headed. The beauty of it is that it’s never listless or meandering. Those scenes depicting Zibby and Jesse’s pen-pal relationship are vibrant and joyful, full of character-establishing details and a heartening fondness for the written word. We like the characters, we like their world, and we like their way of thinking. There’s splendor to be found everywhere. “Grace is neither time- nor place-dependent,” Jesse says, a good example of a line that should have made me roll my eyes but made me nod my head instead.
Radnor is easy-going enough to compensate for his character’s lack of depth, and he plays well with others, his sitcom experience having honed his talent for quizzical reactions and straight-man flustering. Elizabeth Olsen studiously avoids letting Zibby become a dream pixie, even when she’s reminding Jesse that her training as an improv performer means always saying YES to life. Zac Efron’s scarce, well-timed scenes as the dippy Nat are highlights. Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney, of course, improve everything they touch.
This is a movie about smart people, made for smart people, but it also deflates the snobbery of smart people like Jesse who ridicule popular fiction and are, in the words of the romantics professor, “effete, over-articulate man-boys.” What use is there in learning if it doesn’t help you enjoy life more? Here’s a film that makes you want to read some great books, learn some amazing stuff, and wring all the truth and beauty you can out of life. And it does it without forgetting to be funny and compassionate along the way.