“How I Met Your Mother” is one of those rare shows where I like most of the main characters, with the exception of Ted Mosby. It’s not that I find Ted unlikeable; I just don’t find him relatable. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t find Josh Radnor’s latest film Liberal Arts memorable.
Liberal Arts is about a 35-year-old college admissions representative and book snob named Jesse (Josh Radnor). When Jesse’s former professor (Richard Jenkins) asks him to speak at his retirement dinner, Jesse decides to take a trip down nostalgia lane. While visiting his alma mater in Ohio, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old drama student. Jesse is quickly taken with Zibby’s charm, and the two begin exchanging handwritten letters. Their relationship turns romantic when Jesse pays Zibby another visit. However, it becomes glaringly obvious that Jesse’s fondness for the past may have influenced his feelings for Zibby.
A lot of talking goes on in this film, but Jesse is doing most of it. In addition to befriending Zibby, Jesse strikes up a conversation with a student he spots reading his favorite book. Dean (John Margaro) is a sullen 20-something suffering from manic depression. While in the student library, Jesse has an awkward encounter with his British former literature professor Elizabeth Reaser (Allison Janney). Like Dean, Professor Reaser only appears in a handful of scenes. However, Dean and Reaser both have long, somewhat insightful conversations with Jesse.
There are a number of reasons why I didn’t enjoy this film, but Radnor’s intellectual elitist attitude is the main culprit. Throughout the film, Jesse openly expresses his like and dislikes without providing the other characters an opportunity to voice their opinions. Professor Reaser and Zibby are the two exceptions, but only Reaser is successful in getting through to Jesse.
Jesse and Zibby’s relationship was also problematic for me. I’m never fully convinced that Jesse’s feelings towards Zibby are genuine. When he’s visiting Zibby’s dorm room, he notices a cheesy vampire novel on her desk. Rather than spend time with her, Jesse spends the whole day reading the novel just so he can argue his case for why the novel is trash.
Radnor, who wrote and directed the movie, is too preoccupied with sculpting and perfecting Jesse’s journey that he’s unable to fully explore the other characters. Richard Jenkins character is perhaps the one that suffers the most from this. The film makes use of his trepidation about retiring, but it doesn’t go into greater detail once Jesse and Zibby’s relationship begins to evolve.
In the end, we’re left with an unsatisfying opinion about every one of these characters, especially Jesse—who now that I think about it, seems eerily similar to Ted Mosby.