Liberal Arts

I think there are celeb-o-philes, starfuckers, and all manners of crazy people who say all the time what I’m about to say, but I hope it comes across as genuine and not supremely googly-eyed: I think Josh Radnor and I are kindred spirits.

Seriously. Let me have this one.

I had high expectations for this film, as I loved Happythankyoumoreplease, and I’m generally a defendant of Ted Mosby where most others aren’t, and so when I saw Zac Efron playing a rastafarian-esque twentysomething wandering around a college campus, I was sort of let down. Efron played the movie’s conscience character, Nat, and not very well. His presence seemed contrived, sent there too conveniently to help Radnor’s character, Jesse, figure his shit out. But if Nat’s pointless meandering (and Jesse’s, to a point) is my only point of contention in this movie, I can’t really raise a fist. And, also, I truly love Jesse.

I love all of the characters that Radnor plays because they are versions of him, and I love him. He always injects parts of himself into his roles — Mosby is a New Yorker by way of Ohio, this Jesse is a New Yorker by way of Ohio, Radnor himself, well, you know — and so even though he might not be doing a hell of a lot of acting, he’s always supremely vulnerable on screen because he’s so himself and so real. And this Jesse character is so composed on the outside — he knows how to be successful, he has a good job, he coexists with other humans in a giant urban area — but on the inside, he’s crumbling, and he comes to terms with it rather diplomatically. He grows up by fathering others, namely Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) and Dean (John Magaro, a.k.a. baby Ken Marino). Zibby is his platonic-ish love interest, 16 years his senior, and she is magnetic without being overly sexual. She’s presumably smarter and cooler and exactly how he wishes he was in college, but never was. She is the girl he wishes he saw every day in the admissions office at NYU, where he works. And when he meets her at his old college campus, returning to pay tribute to his favorite professor (Richard Jenkins! Nathaniel Fisher! I can’t ever believe he’s playing a live character anymore.) on the brink of his retirement, he wants to soak up her youth while retaining some of his own. She is the angel on his shoulder. Meanwhile, Dean is the devil, the dark cloud, the suicidal genius, who requires a lot of attention without even realizing it, and who ends up pulling Jesse back to Earth while he’s floating around with Zibby. Both college kids imbue Jesse with more wisdom than he could have asked for, but only because their predicaments force him to dole out advice he didn’t know he had in him.

Jesse’s relationship with Zibby is very sweet, and it could easily not have been. But Radnor is so wholesome and nice that the age difference doesn’t feel wrong. They grow close over letter-writing, and discuss such romantic things as opera and violin concertos and the absurdity of vampire novels (the latter of which I can only imagine was a nod to his ex-girlfriend, an actress in the Twilight movies). They talk in lofty, deep terms, and they try to experience everything completely, and even though it seems ridiculous, it’s very easy to relate to. I, too, took a classical music class in college that changed my life and made me want to share my findings with everyone. I, too, had many en pals when I was younger that I wrote to with fervor without ever really knowing them first in real life. They were people I met at camp, or relatives of relatives, or things like that. And I, too, have wandered around my city with my headphones on, aiming not to tune the world out but to soak it up, only with the right soundtrack. I don’t know if Radnor experience any of those things in his real life, or if he just made them us, but I’m damn comforted by the fact that he included them in the script.

You want to root for Jesse and Zibby to get together, but you also want to see them grow apart and live their lives, because even though they’re great together, “she’s advanced” and “he’s stunted,” as the movie says, so they can’t mature together even if they tried to. The movie also says, “Anyplace you don’t leave is a prison,” which is something to contemplate for awhile. I know I have. You go back and forth with Jesse, Zibby, Dean, and every other college kid on that liberal arts campus. You laugh with Jesse as he tries to calculate how old she’d be when he’s certain milestone ages, and you cry with Zibby when he turns down her virginity-loss proposition. But it all makes sense, and it’s Josh Radnor’s quaint, thoughtful little world, and I enjoy being in it.

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