During my first year after graduating from college, I spent a lot of weekends making the one-hour drive from Virginia Beach back to the green and gold-blooded William & Mary. It wasn’t that I sorely missed the campus or the people – though I certainly did – but rather the familiarity comforted me in a time of personal turmoil. Now in my second year removed, I’ve made the visit much less, because even though I love the people still finishing up their time as much as everyone else, I’ve needed to give myself the chance to grow away from it. In fact, the passage of time has made me become a stranger to the old stomping grounds.
But then I watch Josh Radner’s Liberal Arts, and I wonder whether that feeling will remain the same or evolve by my mid-30s. In his second directorial feature, Radnor, better known as Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother, explores the magnetic strength of that nostalgia as Jesse, a jaded college admissions officer who tries to re-experience that youthful effervescence in the comforts of his alma mater. Instead of finding comfort in these universal themes, Radnor’s vision for Liberal Arts is equal parts interesting and frustrating.
Not only is this Radnor’s second directorial feature, it’s his second as screenwriter, as well. Unfortunately, every issue that plagues Liberal Arts, keeping it from reaching its full potential can be traced back to the screenplay. First of all, even though the film is so intent on mining relatable feelings from a narrative that flirts with boldness, it doesn’t quite have the character depth to match. Like most, if not all of the characters that inhabit this story, Jesse comes across as merely a caricature of the viewers meant to identify with him. Beyond the abnormal longing posing as sympathetic and the arrogant pop culture bashing disguised as scholarly thought, there isn’t much else to grasp until he reaches the end of his arc.
The same can be said for Zibby, a college sophomore and taboo love interest, of sorts, played by co-star Elizabeth Olsen. Partially because her screen time is second to Radnor’s, we never get to witness Zibby develop from her archetypal rough sketch of a quirky, happy-go-lucky, though still mature for her age college kid. Interestingly enough, though other minor protagonists like Peter (Richard Jenkins), Professor Fairfield (Allison Janney) and Dean (John Magaro) are only outlines needing some fleshing out, they capture attention in their existence as sprawling parallels to Jesse. In fact, it often seems Radnor was more focused on creating these parallels than using the characters as proper vehicles for Jesse’s renewal.
Though the characters are somewhat lackluster, there are some genuinely poignant moments that the script produces for them. Jenkins’ Peter seems to be at the epicenter of quite a few of them, playing an old professor of Jesse’s on his way out the door. Between scenes like his heartbroken retirement speech and his impassioned plea to the dean to stay on board, the film sets up this beautiful parallel of Jesse and Peter as young-at-heart adults terrified of moving on. Jesse’s climactic argument with Zibby, his realization that Professor Fairfield doesn’t stack up to his memory and his guidance of Dean are each moving in their own way, mostly thanks to some solid performances from all involved.
At the same time, however, each and every one of these moments feeds into the screenplay’s own less than revelatory epiphanies that we are supposed to receive as uncommon wisdom. And as a result, the whole picture can’t help feel condescendingly self-indulgent and philosophically shallow, as the cast casually passes down advice most rational, level headed college students might pick up on by the time they receive their diploma. What should be an incisive, if familiar message quickly becomes an unnecessary test of patience.
Liberal Arts is hardly the worst a cinematic nostalgia trip has to offer, but perhaps it would have been better if it had made the awareness that it wasn’t coming to any original conclusions. At the very least, it is a mature view of reengaging with the wistfulness of youth, and if you are a fan of or particularly fond of any of the cast members, just maybe you’ll receive what it has to say a little better. Not to mention, the two scenes in which Zac Efron appears are magical enough to somewhat gloss over everything else.