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When 30-something Jesse is invited back to his alma mater, he falls for a 19-year-old college student and is faced with the powerful attraction that springs up between them.
For more about Liberal Arts and the Liberal Arts Blu-ray release, see Liberal Arts Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on December 10, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Elizabeth Reaser, John Magaro
Director: Josh Radnor
» See full cast & crew
Liberal Arts Blu-ray Review
Growing Up 101
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, December 10, 2012
One of the core aims of a liberal arts education is to produce articulate, critically thinking individuals who are knowledgable about a variety of subjects. The hope, of course, is that this will open students to myriad professional opportunities and ready them for the "real world." College is typically more successful at the former than the latter. Growing up, fitting in, and getting older isn't easy and doesn't necessarily get easier. It's tempting—especially for those in their mid-thirties, young enough to remember youth but old enough to know it's fleeting—to pine for the comparatively simple golden days of campus life, when the possibilities seemed endless.
That's the thematic gist of Liberal Arts, a bittersweet romantic drama from writer/director/actor Josh Radnor, who's best known for his leading role on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Radnor made his directorial debut in 2010 with the so-so happythankyoumoreplease— which is similarly about dealing with the nascent complexities of adulthood—but Liberal Arts is much more self-assured. While occasionally veering off into narrative cliche, Radnor's script gracefully broaches the subjects of aging, innocence, and the rose-colored glasses of reminiscence. If you too graduated from some small, green-lawned and tree-lined college with a high teacher-to-student ratio, the film may make you a bit misty-eyed about your own past.
Radnor stars as Jesse Fischer, a 35-year-old erstwhile English major who's now low on the academic totem pole as an admissions counselor for some mediocre New York City college. Life clearly isn't as magical as his British Romantic Poetry class would've led him to believe. He's recently split with his girlfriend, his dirty clothes just got filched from the laundromat, and his job involves lying through his teeth about his place of employment. He drops everything—which isn't much—when he gets a call from his undergrad mentor, liberal political science Professor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), who's soon to retire and wants Jesse to come speak at his farewell party.
Flying back to his midwestern alma mater—which goes unnamed, although the film was shot on-location at Ohio's gorgeous Kenyon College, Radnor's former school—Jessie is overwhelmed by a giddy nostalgia, to the extent of lying down and rolling about laughing on the campus lawn, amid frisbee throwers, picnicking studiers, and plaintive guitarists. Here, everything makes sense, hope springs eternal, and love is unexpectedly in the air. Out to dinner with Prof. Hoberg and two of his longtime friends, Jesse meets their daughter, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore drama student who appears poised and mature for her age. Later, they have a random encounter at a party, and their instant connection is immediately apparent—her flirting coyly, him with supreme what the hell am I doing here awkwardness. He has to return to New York, but they develop a kind of pen-pal relationship—based on a mutual love of handwritten letters and appreciation for classical music—with each new missive more intimate than the last.
As these things tend to go, the desire for physical proximity subsumes the lovey-dovey emotions expressed through mixtapes and perfect penmanship. Zibby invites Jesse to come visit her, with the implied prospect that they could very well sleep together. This is where the drama of the film really gets going, as Jesse confronts the realities of the situation—he's sixteen years her senior—and weighs out the pros and cons. If a May-December romance is between a young woman and a much older man, theirs is more of a May-August, but there's still a pronounced difference in their maturity levels. She's more naive and inexperienced than she seems, and his decisions are obviously being at least partially influenced by the need to recapture the feelings of his younger, more optimistic, less snobbish self.
The film tenderly probes the aching impossibility of their relationship; we want them to be together on one level, but on another, we're well aware that—for the time being, at least—it probably isn't going to work. Both Olsen and Radnor are ideal for their roles, and so likable that you may begin to wish the film had more of an antagonistic edge. (Although, I am glad that Olsen keeps Zibby—despite the character's name—out of quirky, manic-pixie-dream-girl territory.) Radnor takes the opposite tact from most romantic dramas; instead of giving us two characters who are initially opposed and then fall madly in love, he gives us characters who fall in irresponsible infatuation at first sight and then climb back up the cliff of reason and good decision-making. It makes for a dramatic trajectory that—in this genre, anyway—is unusual and refreshing.
There are only two outright slip-ups. One sequence where Jesse and Zibby argue about the merits of a Twilight-type novel feels like too forced of an attempt to highlight their age disparity, and a tryst with Jesse's bitter former Romantics teachers—played by The West Wing's Allison Janney—takes some disappointingly expected turns. Otherwise, the narrative nest built up around the two unlikely lovebirds is carefully constructed, woven through with real empathy and insight about growing up. Even the tangents of Radnor's screenplay—including a subplot with a suicidal, David Foster Wallace-idolizing student (John Magaro), and Prof. Hoberg second-guessing his retirement—have a subtly effective symmetry, demonstrating the anxieties of adulthood in all its stages. Richard Jenkin's character sums it all up when he describes how he's felt like he was 19 ever since he turned 19, but can't reconcile his inner adolescent with the sagging face he sees in the mirror. "Nobody feels like an adult," he says. "It's the world's dirty secret."
Liberal Arts Blu-ray, Video Quality
Shot digitally with the Red Epic high definition camera and matted to 2.35:1, Liberal Arts is smartly attired on Blu-ray, with a 1080p/AVC- encoded presentation that's as free from distractions as a freshman without a girlfriend. You'll find no harsh edge enhancement here, no smeary noise reduction, no artifact-inducing compression issues or other visual sore thumbs. The film has the standard-issue indie rom-drama look—visually simple, decidedly un-arty, maybe a bit flatly lit—but the unobtrusive cinematography suits the story well. The picture has more than adequate sharpness—with in-focus areas of the frame revealing fine detail in the actors' faces and clothing—and color is dense and nicely graded, with rich warm hues and good contrast. If there's a spike in digital source noise during darker scenes, it's slight and not really visible from a normal viewing distance. I wouldn't say anything about the film's visual aesthetic is particularly noteworthy, but there are no problems here whatsoever.
Liberal Arts Blu-ray, Audio Quality
A mostly quiet, dialogue-focused film, Liberal Arts features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that gets the job done with little embellishment. While most of the sound is anchored up front, the rear channels do pipe up often with environmental ambience, from basement party clamor to college town street noise to the outdoorsy hush of the campus green. The tone-appropriate score by Ben Tosh drifts in and out on washes of piano, strings, and guitar, but the mix does get a kick of bombast when Jesse and Zibby begin exploring classical, baroque, and high-Romantic German music with one another. Conversations between the characters are always cleanly recorded, well-balanced, and easily understood. Like the picture quality, there are no real issues to report here. The disc includes optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles, which appear in bright yellow lettering.
Liberal Arts Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Liberal Arts Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Combining nostalgia, adult anxiety, and wishful infatuation, Liberal Arts—written and directed by Josh Radnor—is an affecting rom-drama aimed squarely at thirty-something guys who haven't quite found themselves yet. This is something of a niche audience, given that thirty-something guys who haven't quite found themselves yet—and I should know—are generally loathe to admit as much. Still, if a film that's honest about the way guys get older appeals to you, definitely add Liberal Arts to your to-watch list. It's not earth-shattering in its insights, but it definitely speaks to a certain subset of educated young men ill-prepared for the real world. IFC's Blu-ray is well-equipped with a decent audio/video presentation and a worthwhile audio commentary.
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Liberal Arts Blu-ray, News and Updates
• This Week on Blu-ray: December 18-25 - December 15, 2012
For the week of December 18th, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is bringing Premium Rush to Blu-ray. Criminally underseen during its initial theatrical release - the $35 million feature only grossed $20 million domestically - Premium Rush might be the year's most ...
• Liberal Arts Blu-ray - November 12, 2012
IFC Films and MPI Home Video will release on Blu-ray director Josh Radnor's dramedy Liberal Arts (2012), starring Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen and Zac Efron. The release will be available for purchase online and in shops across the nation on December 18th.
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