A syllabus of smart ideas rather than a persuasive life-changing journey, Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts is another in a long line of recent cinematic Bildungsroman. That fancy literary handle describes stories about sensitive souls, usually a young man, coming of age — or trying to — courtesy of eye-opening and/or mind-blowing experiences. Hollywood and indie helmers alike continue to be hot for a particular big-screen variant of this genre: movies about not-so-young Peter Pans stuck in something like permanent adolescence, dudes still struggling to make it over the hump into adulthood. (Judd Apatow and Paul Rudd, endearing poster boys for arrested development, are still working the growing-up meme in December’s This Is 40.)
As the old doo-wop ditty warns, growing up is hard to do, so boyos from Holden Caulfield to James Dean’s rebel without a cause rarely have an easy ride into maturity. But don’t look for anything disturbing or even majorly eye-opening in Liberal Arts, Radnor’s second effort as writer-director-actor (he’s also familiar from TV’s How I Met Your Mother).
Brainy (MFA, Tisch School of the Arts), pop-culturally canny (he played Benjamin Braddock on Broadway) and good-hearted (no matter how disillusioned, even suicidal, his characters are, they don’t cast dark shadows or skew mean), Radnor paints movies in shades of sitcom pastel. In sharp contrast to the acid bath that was The Graduate, his Liberal Arts is a soft-focus view of how painless growing up affluent and self-absorbed in today’s America can be. (His debut film, happythankyoumoreplease, tackled similar subject matter.)