On The Edge Films

Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds

Points of Interest: Liberal Arts

2012/ USA

Director: Josh Radnor

Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Zac Efron, Allison Janney, Elizabeth Reaser, John Magoro

The Evolution of the Rom-Com

We all know what to expect particularly if you’re of the male gender when the words “rom- com” are mentioned. Your heart sinks knowing that you’re about to experience 90 minutes of the same drivel again. Now we’re not saying ladies are one dimensional in their viewings taste… because these films are huge financial if not critical successes and rake in millions each year. Girls like a bit of romance however it must be noted that the plots of these films are often if not always repeated. Have you seen ‘Friends with Benefits’ and ‘No Strings Attached’? They are the same film… no word of a lie…

A typical Rom-Com typically flows as such:

First thirty minutes: boy meets girl, both are dysfunctional but seem to fit in some way. There is an attraction between the two instantly but they take their time reaching the point of admitting this.

Second thirty minutes: Couple get together, admit love for each other/ sleep together. They begin to find happiness in their more than underwhelming lives. Then there is a problem that either he or she creates

Final thirty minutes: Boy or girl (dependent on who caused the problem) must race against time to win their proposed partner back. They do… and all ends happily.

Along the way expect an evil ex-spouse, a funny best friend and crude sexual comedy. Films that merely act as star selling devices to bring public attention to a male or female actor that’s about to be in a big Hollywood film.

Examples of this as follows…

Chris Evans: Whats Your Number? leading into Captain America

Jake Gyllenhaal: Love and Other Drugs leading into Source Code

Natalie Portman: No Strings Attached leading into Thor

Tom Hardy: This Means War leading into The Dark Knight Rises

All in all the point I’m making here is simple… it’s the same plot regardless of the actors or proposed story but what’s interesting is that now film makers are looking at ways to make Rom-Coms more diverse and complex. Judd Apatow has had a good go in recent years with films such as ‘The 40-Year Old Virgin’, ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘I Love You, Man’ but in 2012 Josh Radnor (Ted from that show ‘How I Met Your Mother’) raised the bar in what we expect from this rather dull and predictable genre.

Along with director David O. Russell‘s ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ (read our review here) in 2012 Radnor’s Liberal Arts has spearheaded what is a revival of the Rom-Com genre… and here’s why.

The film is written, directed by and stars Radnor in the lead role as Jesse, a university admissions tutor who is struggling to come to terms with adulthood and leave his college days behind. His life changes however when he visits his old college in Ohio to attend a dinner for his retiring former tutor (Jenkins) and is introduced to the enigmatic Zibby (Olsen). The two don’t quite fall in love but they form a bond that turns into something stronger. Jesse takes to writing Zibby letters and they almost fall into the cliche we expect… but with a twist.

Because yes this film is about romance and yes it does contain comedy but it is in no way a bucket full of sleeze intended to boost Radnor’s public profile. It feels like a labour of love for the writer/star/ director and a story that has it’s routes in the truth. The film ultimately captures a moment in Jesse’s life as he enters a cross road. He hates his job, loathes the city he lives in and has just broken up with his girlfriend when we first meet him. What Zibby offers him is a chance at youth and to re-live his golden years. What Jesse offers Zibby is a mature companion who offers stability, wisdom and growth. The two eventually realise that their attraction for one another is doomed to fail due to their age gap and also because they want different things. Jesse needs to accept that he is 35 and approaching middle age and Zibby has to face up to the fact that a life with Jesse means skipping youth and frivolity. What’s refreshing is the lack of sex driven narratives in this film. You’d expect a film about college/ university to be full of excess nudity, crude humour and vulgarity in abundance. What we actually get is large amounts of culture and knowledge. Radnor is not trying to patronise us in any way, he is merely summarising reality. For all the laughs Apatow gives us he never really makes anything relatable on an emotional level.

Liberal Arts also diverts the expected norm by offering us a darker sub-plot that focuses on Dean (Magoro) a class mate of Zibby’s who Jesse befriends. We found out that Dean is a manic depressive and struggling to cope with the pressures of higher education. What Jesse strives to do is make him realise that to be young is a short period and that it needs to be rejoiced in. Dean’s attempted suicide calls Jesse into action and helps him finally come to terms with his situation… he must grow up. And it also features a good cameo appearance from one Zac Efron and I bet you’d never thought you’d hear that.

In all it’s a piece of beauty and is really the bench mark for Rom-Coms going forward. What Radnor has proved here (along with David O. Russell) is that if the words ‘romance’ and ‘comedy’ are involved it doesn’t mean that you can’t make a piece of cinema as ground breaking and entertaining as a film from another genre. The evolution has begun… lets see what happens next


-Josh Senior

For anyone interested in viewing some thought provoking romantic comedies here’s a handy list of what we think are some of the best:


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