Josh Radnor is, not surprisingly, a pretty introspective guy. Just like his character Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother, Radnor comes off as sweet, genuine and well read. At least that’s the impression I got after seeing him talk at the University of Maryland last night. He is an actor after all; for all I know he’s a Barney Stinson-level jerk.
Based on the talk, his earnestness on HIMYM and the optimistic tone of his film Liberal Arts (which he screened the previous night for UMD students), I’m willing to believe Radnor’s nerdy-cool-sincere act. Anyone who can make a movie like Liberal Arts has to wear his heart on his sleeve.
It follows Jesse Fisher (Radnor), who is a slightly more grizzled version of Ted, right down to his New York life and Ohio background. When one of his favorite college professors (Richard Jenkins, who’s awesome at playing cranky funny) retires, he returns to his alma mater for the retirement party. That’s when he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen…yes of that Olsen family), a 19-year-old sophomore who he connects with on intellectual and emotional levels.
What ensues is a story about acting your age. Jesse is a 35-year-old New Yorker who is, basically, creeping on an Ohio college girl. There’s a scene where he literally does the math, which doesn’t help his case. At least he had the best line in the film. When asked what his college major was, he replied: “I was English with a minor in history, just to make sure I was fully unemployable.” Preach it.
To be fair though, Zibby is the kind of college girl you could fall in love with pretty easily. She’s into classical music, reads philosophical books in her spare time and appears to be more interested in finding connections than becoming a bro hoe. Of course, Zibby was also a Twilight fan, so she loses points for that.
But she, and Liberal Arts as a whole, does a great job of capturing modern college life. Most of it was filmed at Kenyon College, a beautiful old-timey campus in Ohio (also Radnor’s alma mater). He goes through all the beats of college: parties with red solo cups, dining halls with crappy food, sexiling, and, most importantly, quirky students.
Zac Efron randomly shows up as a perpetually high loser (the exact words of the girl sitting behind me in the theater: “my panties just melted”) who gives Jesse love and life advice. Jesse befriends struggling genius Dean, who can’t seem to find happiness outside of books. There’s even Zibby’s cute Asian roommate Vanessa. Radnor even got the cute Asian roommate right; impressive for a guy who graduated college in the 90s.
The core of the story is still about Jesse and Zibby. At one point, Jesse questions whether the attraction is because he’s stunted or Zibby is advanced. I would say it’s a little of both, but by the end, Jesse starts acting 35 and Zibby 19.
All of Liberal Arts’ sincerity shone through in Radnor’s talk. He talked about HIMYM and life as an actor, but he also veered into philosophical territory like this gem about karma: “We keep thinking the world’s out there…But if you want a peaceful world, you’ve got to be peaceful.” Anyone who talks so eloquently, can quote David Foster Wallace and play characters as gooey as Ted or Jesse has to be the real deal. Thanks for the education in life and liberal arts Mr. Radnor!
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