The time travel genre where the protagonist goes back to the past to change or relive a cherished memory normally ends with lessons being learned and acceptance of essential events required. So why is it so hard for people to accept that about college? That’s the overwhelming question that Josh Radnor poses with Liberal Arts, his follow-up to 2010’s Happythankyoumoreplease, which also premiered at Sundance. Instead of diving into the concepts of New Yorkers in love, Radnor goes back to school and chooses to explore why any type of education (e.g. college, high school) seems to be better than dealing with whatever happens to be in the present.
Jesse Fisher (Radnor) is in his early thirties and goes through the monotonous routine of admissions counselor at an unnamed university in New York. But the city and it’s notorious life (honestly, who isn’t afraid of a laundromat thief) help Jesse head back to his alma mater where his mentor, Professor Hoburg, is being honored over the weekend. He also gets introduced Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen
), an undergrad that loves improv and seems to have a permanent smile on her face. Even later, he encounters Nat (Zac Efron
), a beanie-wearing stoner stereotype that whisks Jesse from a campus bench to house party to be reintroduced to Zibby.
For Jesse, meeting a younger woman is an instant adrenaline boost--music sounds better, books are more interesting and he seems to be over his old relationship. But the problem that his new-found fling is still 19 and all the way in Ohio begins to grate the relationship, along with Professor Hoburg’s trouble adjusting to post-academia, his re-emerging crush on a former professor (Alison Janney) that takes a turn for the possible and random encounters with students like Dean (John Magaro) whose depression grows with every time Jesse finds him on campus.
Radnor, thankfully, is not his character from the syndicated TV mega-monster that is How I Met Your Mother
. In fact, as a writer-director, Radnor is a smart and careful creator that excels in making personas for his character. Jesse is outraged, for example, that Zibby would spend her time reading young adult novels (“Twilight
”) when he regards her as being educated, but then finds himself getting drawn into the pulp novels. It’s the perfect form of deconstruction that once was the calling card for Zach Braff’s Garden State
. Only Radnor has no sympathy for his straw dogs as he reveals them and shows their faults, even with the seemingly perfect Nat that plays the type of character who should be comfortable “jumping the shark.”
Yet that’s the charm behind Liberal Arts, much like Happythankyoumoreplease. Radnor isn’t afraid to focus on the worst parts that the current type of post-graduate life. People are desperate for remembering something fun before they had actual consequence, which he does a tad heavy-handedly by making Jesse an admissions counselor. But the point is still valid: you can’t go home again. Especially when “home” is a dream version of what happened before the “real world” took over. Even down to the opening segment where someone steals Jesse’s laundry is like a dream--it’s the greatest fear a person could have at the laundromat, but just how often does that happen?
is a necessary deconstruction of our current fascination with “the better times.” Radnor isn’t apologetic about missing the college years, nor should anyone be. But, as he shows off, there’s a certain point when the $2.50 falafel isn’t dinner anymore and we’re not all going to be Ernest Hemingway
or Hunter S. Thompson