DVD+Digital: Elizabeth Olsen, college nostalgia and Liberal Arts



One of the great things about college town life, in my experience, is being plugged into a constant source of youthful energy and enthusiasm. In the spring especially, I like to walk around Chapel Hill and the UNC campus just to recharge my psychic batteries. It reminds me of my own undergraduate days, when life seemed full of promise and purpose, and — most critically, perhaps — college girls in sun dresses.

The indie comedy Liberal Arts — new to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week — explores this phenomenon with the story of one 30-something man's retreat to the university campus. Writer and director Josh Radnor (happythankyoumoreplease) plays Jesse Fisher, recovering English major and unhappy NYC professional, who returns to his alma mater in Ohio when a beloved professor retires.

Upon his return, Jesse meets the lovely and free-spirited sophomore Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). They embark on a friendship, perhaps with benefits, as Jesse wallows in the sepia-toned nostalgia of college days. Jesse doesn't quite approve of Zibby's reading list (“What is it with you girls and vampires?”) but he finds that she sparks in him feelings he's forgotten he can feel.

There is, of course, the matter of the age difference. Jesse does the math and calculates that when he was Zibby's age, she was three years old. But he runs the numbers again and is pleased to discover that when he's 87, she'll be 71. That seems OK, right?

As a film, Liberal Arts is exceedingly gentle and so lightweight that the disc threatens to float right out of the DVD player. But I have a real soft spot for good-hearted indie romances like this. The dialogue may be self-conscious and embarrassingly precious, but I've read my old sophomore journals and these are qualities apparently innate to undergraduate communication. So maybe it's on purpose.

Richard Jenkins lends some much needed grown-up gravitas as Jesse's professor and mentor, Peter Hoberg, reluctantly retiring after 37 years of academic rabble rousing. Peter puts on a brave face, but isn't sure what to do with himself outside of those familiar ivory towers. He also provides Jesse with some sage advice about growing old. (“Since I was 19, I have never felt not 19. Nobody feels like an adult. It's the world's dirty secret.”)

If nothing else, Liberal Arts is another chance to admire the work of Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), who isn't afraid to explore the embarrassingly earnest aspects of her character. (One scene concerning the profundity of improv classes rings painfully true.)

Liberal Arts may not be great filmmaking — there's a Screenwriting 101 flavor to the whole affair — but it's pleasant and honest as it remembers those halcyon days of campus life. It's like my old college buddy Mark says: “Ah youth, you motherfucker, where have you gone?”

Also New This Week:

Comic Mike Birbiglia and public radio deity Ira Glass team up in Sleepwalk With Me, based on a true story that's also been turned into a comedy special, a one-man off-Broadway show and a bestselling book. Clearly, this is a guy that really knows how to tell a story. The DVD extras feature contributions from the film's long list of alt.comedy stars — Marc Maron, Jesse Klein, Wyatt Senac — and suggest the film was a true DIY labor of love.

Funny or Die Presents, HBO's half-hour sketch comedy and short film showcase, features commissioned pieces from various writers and performers affiliated with the online comedy empire Funnyordie.com. The season two collection, new to DVD this week, collects all 10 episodes from the 2011 run. The material is wildly uneven, but it's worth mining for ridiculous bits like “Do You Want to See a Dead Body?“ and “Adam West Hits on You … Hard.”

Plus: Anna Kendrick in the surprisingly delightful Pitch Perfect; Colin Farrell in the sci-fi reboot Total Recall; Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the bicycle actioner Premium Rush; and Clint Eastwood's stony squint in Trouble With the Curve.

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