Fans of CBS' How I Met Your Mother -- and casual passers-by marginally aware of the show -- will notice how the cast has begun to diversify their portfolios. It started with Neil Patrick Harris becoming the default host of the world, followed swiftly by Jason Segel inching away from stoner-comedies to more mainstream box office fare. Cobie Smoulders picked up a rather decent supporting role in this year's The Avengers and Allison Hannigan will always be the most successful thespian from the American Pie family.
That leaves "star" Josh Radnor, whose quest for his soulmate is the keystone of HIMYM's dramatic setup and who has, for the most part, remained largely unknown to those outside of the juggernaut of CBS's Monday comedy lineup. Turns out, Radnor has been cementing his status as "The New Zach Braff" by not only focusing on his breakout sitcom role -- that of a quirky hopeless romantic everyman -- but also padding his resume as an up-and-coming writer and director of Independent Film. Much like how Zach Braff had his Garden State, Radnor has given us HappyThankYouMorePlease -- a 2010 Sundance award-winner that saw a modest theatrical release to mixed reviews -- and now Liberal Arts, a light dramedy about the romance of academia and the unstoppable passage of time.
Radnor -- again writing, starring and directing -- is Jesse, a mid-30s New Yorker numbed by his job as a University admissions counselor. When he's invited back to his Alma Mater for the retirement dinner of a friend and former professor his memories of unhindered youth and the adventure of learning are revived and in the ensuing glow he falls into an ill-advised romance with a 19-year-old sophomore (played by the Indie girl-of-the-moment Elizabeth Olsen, of Martha Marcy May Marlene).
What unfolds is a charming cautionary tale about accepting the changing times, learning to act your age and enjoying life, all personified by a small but delightful supporting cast -- Richard Jenkins, Allison Janey and Zac Efron against-type as a hippie stoner.
If I were to name a fault, it would be that the plot moves forward along a natural -- I hate to say "predictable" -- path with few earth-shaking surprises but even that comes with a caveat: how often in life is our earth shaken? While yes, the movie stays mostly above water, resisting the urge at a number of occasions to plunge into darker depths, the result is story that from end to end would plausibly exist in the universe of a boring 30-something's life. That he learns something and that the audience gets some well-deserved laughs is gravy on the 2-hour slice of life.
The comparison is inevitable and Liberal Arts falls short of Garden State, but Radnor still crafts a worthwhile tale that is sweet, clever, sincere and relatable to anyone who has ever been to college or who has ever aged. He avoids the pull of a lurid, hard-to-watch-romance, instead allowing his character the sense to recognize the disaster of loving a teenager, while being tortured by a believable attraction to her. What's more, the movie is shockingly tame toeing the line between PG and PG-13 -- Sundance movies aren't rated -- which, to anyone who's been to Sundance, can be a refreshing surprise. B+