Josh Radnor fails to transcend TV humor in new Sundance film

Classic Schmosby. After seven years of playing Ted Mosby in “How I Met Your Mother,” Josh Radnor has been making efforts to discover life apart from his architect alter ego. However earnestly he has tried to create another image of himself, he only kind of, sort of departs from Ted. It’s difficult to separate the man from the hit sitcom when in his last two films he appears to be playing Mosby when he’s not hanging out at MacLaren’s.

After his 2010 directorial debut, “Happythankyoumoreplease,” Radnor returns to the Sundance Film  Festival with his sophomore film, written, directed by and starring himself:  “Liberal Arts.” Through Sundance USA, his film was shown to an audience at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco last week.

“Liberal Arts,” in a nutshell, is about an overly cerebral college admissions advisor looking for love and the meaning of life. He’s prone to getting into heavy arguments about literature, can be overly enthusiastic and throws his caution to the wind when he thinks he has found love. Sound like an episode of “How I Met Your Mother?”

Radnor  plays the protagonist, Jesse, who is coming to grips with his not-so-ideal, post-collegiate life. Struggling to be inspired in New York (because God knows that place stifles creativity), where not even his laundry is safe, Jesse gladly takes the opportunity to travel to Ohio to visit his alma mater, Kenyon College (Radnor’s alma mater, as well). There to celebrate the retirement of one of his favorite professors (Richard Jenkins), Jesse unexpectedly meets 19-year-old sophomore Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen — the taller, more indie Olsen sister).  However, the reality of their age difference catches up with them, leaving Jesse to choose between pursuing true romance and honoring his responsibility as an adult.

What saves this film from being a repetitive, standard nostalgic montage of rolling Ohian hills, NYC skylines and shots of people laughing too emphatically are the memorable performances given by the supporting cast. Elizabeth Olsen does well in capturing Zibby’s confident maturity, easily able to execute her plucky outbursts with a kind of fresh composure. It’s not difficult to understand how Radnor’s character can justify their 16-year age gap. Olsen has the talent to make her onscreen happiness infectious and simultaneously heartbreaking when she gets so frustrated in her quest to grow up.

Allison Janney is fierce as Professor Fairfield, a Romantic literature professor. Able to quote the likes of Byron and stoically kick a man out of her bed while pouring herself a glass of whiskey, post-coitus, Janney is delightful as a cold, hard bitch.  Zac Efron, almost out of nowhere, pops up and turns out to be really good at playing college-age dudes who vaguely resemble Jack Black.

Stylistically differing from the deadpan, quick shots of “Happythankyoumoreplease,” “Liberal Arts” is a somewhat deeper look into the plight of the 30-somethings.  Even Radnor’s writing eases into itself as the movie progresses and reflects his own, as he puts it, “overly analytical” self. However, the movie as a whole does not justify the charisma and wit that Radnor is able to convey to an audience of movie-goers.  At the Q&A, you couldn’t help but wonder where all of that quickfire humor and genuineness was hiding and how it was bogged down in a formulaic plot that only showcased one side of Radnor’s acting abilities. Still, there is hope that maybe once Radnor wraps things up with “HIMYM,” he’ll have the to time to discover his true voice as a director,  writer and actor.