Director: Greg Mottola
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Margarita Levieva, Matt Bush
Running Time: 107 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
What a year for coming-of-age films this is turning into. It's infrequent that I see two movies in a row that are so similar thematically and manage to strike the same chord. Both Adventureland and (500) Days of Summer were both misrepresented as fluffy comedies, the former more severely. Both deal with a transforming summer relationship. In each, music is a major component. And both focus their gaze on a twenty-something male protagonist wrestling with post-grad blues, invoking recollections (one very literally) of The Graduate. 2009, which was feared to be heading down the same underwhelming path as '08, has turned some kind of a corner recently and it's been fun to watch the reaction. I've yet to see all the films triggering this widespread enthusiasm but at least now I can scratch another off the must-see list and report it met expectations.
Greg Motttola's Adventureland received mostly mixed reviews when it opened in April and didn't connect with audiences who mistakenly went in expecting another Judd Apatow-style comedy in a year when even Apatow didn't feel like making a Judd Apatow-style comedy. We had I Love You, Man to fill that niche, which it did quite well. Unfortunately, when you splash the words, "FROM THE DIRECTOR OF SUPERBAD" across a film's poster, certain expectations will accompany it, all of which Adventureland couldn't have delivered on because it just isn't that kind of movie. But those who had actually seen and liked it didn't just merely like it. They LOVED it. No matter what it was marketed as, it was clear that it really spoke to them in a big way, piquing my interest in it further. This is a drama with very few huge laughs and you'll enjoy it best if you prepare yourself for that before tackling it. What it does expertly instead is succeed at invoking a very specific time period, mood and atmosphere that makes it easy to see how it's connected with a vocal minority of viewers on the level it has. In avoiding many of the pitfalls that plague this genre and choosing to go a more subtly intelligent route, the film definitely deserved much more attention than it was paid.
It's 1987 and recent Oberlin College graduate James Brennan (Jessie Eisenberg) is looking forward to touring Europe for the summer before attending Columbia University grad school to study journalism in the fall. That is until his parents (Wendie Malik and Jack Gilpin) break the news that they can't subsidize him and he'll have to put his dreams of going to Europe on hold to instead spend the summer working in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He lands a gig at Adventureland, the local amusement park run by an eccentric married couple (SNL's Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), that employs a wide variety of interesting, colorful characters.Despite his desire to work on RIDES, James is incorrectly sized up by management as a GAMES guy. Or as his t-shirt reads, GAMES GAMES GAMES GAMES. In a just world where audiences actually went to see this movie, millions of those shirts could have been sold. The awkward, intellectual James immediately befriends the even geekier and more awkward Joel (Martin Starr) and despite still nursing a broken heart from college, starts to develops serious feelings for the captivating Em (Kristen Stewart). Besides wrestling with a troubled home life, she's been having a fling with the park's married maintenance man, Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a former musician whose claims to have jammed with Lou Reed are dubious. Things are complicated further for James with the return of seductive rides operator Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), a Madonna clone who transfixes all the guys at the park. Whether he likes it or not, his worst summer ever is on a path to become the best and most memorable of his life.
Adventureland is the kind of movie likely to dredge up a lot of memories (some painful) for those who watch it. What laughter there is comes from the situations where you can stop and say, "Yeah, I've been there." And even if you haven't been there, it kind of feels like you were anyway. Unlike (500) Days of Summer, it doesn't go for the jugular in its depiction of romantic relationships and is more sentimental, unapologetically drenching itself in nostalgia. It also fits into one of my favorite movie sub-genres: Cool workplaces. Think Clerks or Empire Records. I've always found it compelling to watch people who would have never otherwise met be thrown together by chance in a job only to end up forging a lasting friendship. James is lucky enough to get that experience but his post-grad struggles before taking this seemingly lame, dead-end job. are shown realistically by Mottola and reverberate with personal sentiment. The cold, hard fact that college can't possibly prepare you for life is thrown in James' face when the comparative literature major is simultaneously over-qualified AND under-qualified for every menial job for which he applies. James is too introspective, too observant, and too sensitive for his own good. In a way, his sincerity is his own worst enemy and he needs something or someone to break him in. His relationship with Em provides that.
Eisenberg (who first impressed in 2005's The Squid and the Whale) has been criticized for giving performances too reminiscent of Michael Cera in their awkwardness. While I'm sure Cera would be flattered (offended?) by the notion that he actually has a "style" of acting that can be imitated, his persona didn't consciously occur to me at all as I watched Eisenberg. Cera is more sarcastic, which perfectly fits a raucous film like Superbad, but would be ill-suited for more dramatic material like this. It's insane to assert the two actors are interchangeable. What Eisenberg does bring to it is a subtly grounded approach, thankfully choosing not to play James as some kind of stuttering, stammering dork incapable of social interaction. As cliche as it's becoming to see the geek get the girl in every major comedy released these days, thanks to him it at least comes off more bearable than usual.
Strangely though, the movie's success doesn't begin and end with him. This is a rare occasion where the female love interest is being presented pitch-perfectly both in terms of writing and performance and ends up being the more fully realized character. What's most refreshing is that there isn't a phony, insincere bone in Em's body and she doesn't play games. She's given a difficult home situation but the card isn't overplayed and we feel bad for her because she's essentially a good soul who just doesn't know it yet. You can see what James sees in her, and Stewart conveys everything Em's going through with little more than a glance in a revelatory supporting performance.It's a shame she's sabotaging her career by starring in big-budget projects beneath her as I'd like to believe she can recover and continue to do meaningful work like she did in Panic Room and Into the Wild. It would be awful if despite her contribution, the film ages poorly merely because of her star presence in it. The last thing anyone wants to do is remember this as the amusement park movie with "that girl from Twilight." Her and the film deserve better. While the idea of Ryan Reynolds' character getting it on with Stewart's, who looks (and probably is) about half his age, is pretty creepy, the challenging sub-plot is pulled off in an effective, mostly non-creepy way, which is a real credit to the two actors. They make us view it as the mistake that it is and they know it to be as well. When Connell finds out about James' feelings for Em his reaction isn't what you'd expect. He isn't a jerk, just a decent guy with an ego struggling through some issues, an important distinction that would go missing in a lesser script and performance. It's a relatively small part for Reynolds, but it's his most complex to date and he finds a lot of truth in it.
Anyone who says '80's music is discreetly slid into the picture must have been watching a different film than me. Hardly a single scene goes by where key music of the era isn't blasting, whether it be Lou Reed, INXS, Falco, Expose, Husker Du, The Replacements, Crowded House and just for old times sake, The Velvet Underground. It's overkill but I didn't mind since song-for-song it's the best soundtrack to come along in a while. Beyond perfectly capturing the era in terms of music and dress, this joins movies like Donnie Darko and Son of Rambow in not only harnessing the feel of the '80's, but feeling like it was made during that period. Terry Stacey's cinematography and Yo La Tengo's score only reinforces that atmosphere. What laughs there are come from the painful truths of growing up more than anything else, while the rest are filled in by Hader and Wiig, (who are crazy but reined in) and James' former childhood friend Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), who remains in a perpetual state of adolescence. The one character who didn't really work for me was Lisa P., who seemed more a walking stereotype for the decade and a plot marker than an actual human being.
This is an optimistic film coming-of-age-film that understands life can be filled with disappointment and darkness but every once in a while something really incredible happens and you just want stop time and hold onto it for as long as possible. It operates with the knowledge that life can suck sometimes and you'll still survive, but doesn't condescend in any way or succumb to cheap sentimentality (aside from a closing scene that reeks of pure fantasy to the point it feels like a dream sequence). I'm not entirely sure how you can even market movies like this, which is a shame, because coming-of-age films can be the most rewarding of all genres when presented well. Why it's even rated "R" or wasn't given a more advantageous summer release date are valid questions. In a way it reminds me of Judd Apatow's the short-lived TV masterpiece, Freaks and Geeks, which also managed to perfectly capture a mood and time period not too far off from this one. This movie will hit hardest for those who were teenagers in the '80's but everyone else will probably find a lot to appreciate also. Mottola really put himself on the line. It would have been easy money to follow Superbad with another vulgar comedy but he instead chose to tell a story that clearly meant a lot to him. This is one movie I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel of since I cared about these characters and would want to know what they're up to now. It isn't good for anyone when a quality film like Adventureland flops because too many people already think no one cares about their story or what they have to say. The last thing they need is another excuse to not share it.