Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Adventureland

As I had mentioned earlier, I wanted to write more on films and plays I've seen that I have strong feelings about. Even though it's been out of theatres for months and is now on DVD, I just saw this film and felt that this is indeed one of those movies that merits some mention.

There's a scene in Adventureland where James and Joel, two 20something carnival workers, sit in one of the games booths hearing Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" playing on the overheads. But, wait a minute. Didn't we hear this song already in an earlier scene? Right when we make that realization in the audience, James goes, "Jesus Fucking Christ! They play this song like 20 times a day!"

This is one of the many small scenes and exchanges in Adventureland where writer-director Greg Mottola gets the little details right. It transported me back to the time when I worked at the local movie theatre in New Hampshire after graduating high school and had to listen to the same damn songs on repeat all day.

There are in fact many details, big and small, that Adventureland gets just right. The bonds made between co-workers at a demeaning customer service job. The way the staff undermines the petty rules and policies of the job. The makeout sessions in the back seats of car that result in disappointment and rejection the morning after. The socially awkward blurting out too much information to the pretty girl. And, of course, the sadistic cruelty of being forced to listen to the same damn song 20 times a day.

In Adventureland, Mottola expands the coming-of-age theme he used to good (if not broad) comic effect in his debut film Superbad to make a sincerely touching, funny and honest film about being young, falling in love, and the indignities and delights of getting your first incredibly shitty job.

It's the summer of 1987 and James, played by Jesse Eisenberg (from such films as The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland and the sadly overlooked 2002 film Roger Dodger) is a socially awkward college graduate getting ready to cash in on his promised graduation present: a trip to Europe before going to Columbia for grad school in the fall.

Unfortunately, since his father recently lost his job, his parents can't afford to send him on his trip. To make matters worse, instead of traveling around Europe, he'll have to get a job summer job. The only job he's remotely qualified for (as degrees in Comparative Literature don't quite prepare you for the workforce, trust me) is at the local Adventureland amusement park. He is, in fact, a carnie.

At the park, he develops bonds with his co-workers, including Joel (Martin Starr) and Em, a very intelligent and attractive young woman played with quiet confidence and believability by Kristen Stewart (of Twilight fame). A tentative and awkward romance develops between James and Em, even as the hottest girl on the carnie staff, the ever-unattainable Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), starts making eyes at James.

There are some superb scenes throughout this movie that shows Mottola's gifts for subtlety and poignancy, in particular those dealing with the love triangle between James, Em, and the amusement park's maintenance man, Connell (Ryan Reynolds, in a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic turn). Connell is an unhappily married man that is having an affair with Em, unbeknownst to anyone else. What complicates matters is that Connell and James are friends, and James frequently confides in Connell about his feelings towards Em. As jealous as Connell is about James and Em's budding relationship and periodically tries to push James away from Em and towards Lisa P., they are actually friends, and it's clear that Connell actually wishes the best for James and enjoys his company.

The way Mottola and the cast play these scenes among these four characters (Em, James, Connell and Lisa P.) reveal that this isn't a hackneyed coming-of-age melodrama. No one is a clear-cut hero or villain, manipulator or patsy. They're well developed, flawed and interesting characters. (Although Lisa P. isn't a particularly bright or interesting person, she's neither a manipulative bitch nor cardboard cutout. I certainly remember working with a few Lisa Ps. at my various customer service jobs in my 20s and Levieva played her pretty much on the mark.)

I also loved the soundtrack and the way it was used (the previously-mentioned "Rock Me Amadeus," for example). True, the music definitely pulls at the nostalgia strings, but it also successfully pulled me into the story and the setting (there's another great moment using Crowded House's "Don't Dream it's Over" and INXS's "Don't Change"). After I finished watching the movie I found many of the songs online and played them on repeat on my computer.

I'll admit the movie isn't without its flaws. The main character and his friends are just out of college, and often act as if they're just out of — or still in — high school (with James paranoid about his mother seeing him drink, his friend constantly punching him in the nuts and many of the characters making out the back seats of their cars). Some scenes in the final act tread dangerously close into Dawson's Creek territory. And I'm still not sure whether or not Bill Heder and Kristin Wiig's characters/scenes are in the right movie (even though they are very funny).

But these are all forgivable because, for the most part, the movie gets things very, very right. Adventureland is a truly wonderful film that didn't get the attention it deserved during its theatrical release.

Wanting to win a big-ass panda,

James "Cheater" Comtois

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3 Comments:

Blogger MattJ said...

agreed, i actually came in thinking that is was going to be a comedy and it turned into a very sensitive and thoughtful teenage romance/drama with awesome performances and perfect pitch. One of the great surprises for me over the past few months.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I think it was improperly advertised. The trailers and TV spots made it out to be Superbad 2: Cotton Candy & Boners, and that's certainly not the case.

4:32 PM  
Blogger DPS said...

Where am I supposed to GET my cotton candy and boners if not at Adventureland?

grumble, grumble...

9:51 AM  

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