Best known for playing Ted on the hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother, with happythankyoumoreplease and now Liberal Arts, Josh Radnor is establishing himself as a thoughtful writer-director of feature films dealing with young adults facing—and embracing—adulthood. An ode to his years at Kenyon College specifically and liberal arts education generally, his latest is at once a profound defense of academia for academia’s sake and a gentle critique of nostalgia: Live too much in the past (or in a book), and you’ll miss out on what’s in front of you.
Jesse (Radnor), a college admissions counselor in New York City, is confronted with these realities when he’s invited to return to his Ohio alma mater to give a speech at a retirement party for his favorite English professor, Peter (Richard Jenkins). Newly single and weary of dealing with life in the big city (his laundry is stolen from the Laundromat in the opening scenes of the film), Jesse literally walks with a spring in his step when he gets back on campus.
There he meets Zibby (a luminous Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore with a passion for classical music, improv and trashy vampire novels. In a series of conversations about books, music and theater, they connect. (Radnor tries to cinematize these scenes by moving the couple around campus, but it’s still just a sequence of two people talking that could have used some action.) They agree to keep in touch by writing each other old-fashioned handwritten letters. As their relationship develops, however, their age difference and the perhaps unhealthy nostalgia behind their burgeoning romance start to weigh on Jesse.
None of this is lost on Peter, who doesn’t know what to do with himself now that he doesn’t have syllabi to prepare and papers to grade. In a characteristically heart-tugging performance, Jenkins provides a peek behind Peter’s curmudgeonly mask as he struggles to move on now that he’s no longer associated with the institution that defined his career. Meanwhile, Jesse also crosses paths with Dean (John Magaro), a depressed genius whose college years have not been the best of his life. Jesse and Dean bond over their mutual love for David Foster Wallace (although he remains unnamed in the film, as do Zibby’s gothic romances), but Dean offers a stark example of why one should take one’s nose out of a book from time to time.
In his films, Radnor tends to present a thesis and then hammer away at it. In this case, it’s saying yes to whatever life puts in front of you—from Zibby’s one rule of improv that you “can’t say no” to Zac Efron’s maxim-ready hippie who sagely observes, “Fortune never smiles on those who say no.” But these variations on a theme don’t necessarily undermine the philosophy at work. Like the concept behind the title of happythankyoumoreplease, “say yes”—and its counterpoint—bears repeating.
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Elizabeth Reaser, John Magaro, Zac Efron
Release Date: Sept. 14, 2012