Thursday, April 16, 2009

Adventureland: Enjoyable ride

Adventureland (2009) • View trailer for Adventureland
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.16.09
Buy DVD: Adventureland • Buy Blu-Ray: Adventureland [Blu-ray]

In the wide spectrum of dead-end summer jobs, few could be more lifeless than getting stuck at a dive amusement park in suburban Pennsylvania.

Writer/director Greg Mottola really captures the setting's scuzzy, dispirited tone  along with an authentic 1987 vibe  in Adventureland, an unexpectedly poignant little flick that successfully rises above the "teen sex comedy" promotional campaign with which it has been saddled.
Although his daytime responsibilities are dispiriting, James (Jesse Eisenberg)
bonds with Em (Kristen Stewart), who helps make the hours pass more
enjoyably. James would love to deepen their relationship, but Em conceals a
major part of her personal life ... and our nerdish hero fears that he'll never be
able to penetrate that wall.

Although not quite as perceptively wired to the 1980s Zeitgeist as American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused were to their respective eras, Mottola's film nonetheless captures the spirit of this time and place, as filtered through the sensibilities of half a dozen young twentysomethings struggling to find their place in the world.

Most notably one twentysomething, actually: recent college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), an uptight and geekily over-educated nice guy who intended to spend his summer touring Europe with a good friend. Alas, parental finances have fallen on hard times, so the overseas excursion is out.

Worse yet, Mom (Wendie Malick) and Dad (Jack Gilpin) no longer can afford to help James with tuition at the Ivy League grad school for which he already has qualified ... so successfully entering that program in the fall will depend on his own ability to cover expenses.

Trouble is, James lacks the skills for any sort of normal job; he even lacks the wherewithal to properly apply for a job. (His choice of "references" during fruitless conversations with prospective employers are a hoot.)

That leaves the woeful, can't-miss opportunities at a tawdry, peeling-paint "funtastic" amusement park dubbed Adventureland, reluctant home of those unable to find work anywhere else. This blend of rattletrap rides and creaky arcade games isn't even honest; the supposed tests of skill are classic carny cons deliberately rigged to prevent unsuspecting marks from ever winning the most delectable prize, a "giant-ass stuffed panda."

James' first clue of the bad news to come should be the fact that his own personal shadow  the lunatic Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), who goes by his last name  is perfectly suited to the Adventureland atmosphere.

The dreadful dynamic between James and Frigo demonstrates that Mottola well remembers the degree to which social misfits will tolerate abusive behavior from so-called "friends," out of the believe that it's impossible to trade up. Frigo, a childhood friend turned ball-busting prankster, is a barrel of grotesque habits, his favorite being a tendency to sucker-punch James in the crotch.

And James takes it, out of the misguided belief that  pain notwithstanding  this is the sort of thing that buddies do to each other.

We can but shake our heads in sorrow.

(And hope that Mottola's story gives James an opportunity for serious payback, sooner or later.)

James' daylight hours at Adventureland are sheer torture, since he's stuck running a lackluster horserace game on the Midway: a position for which he is spectacularly unsuited, as he lacks enough stage savvy to spice up each round with the faux ferocity of a track announcer.

Fortunately, life isn't all bad. Things are better with his new co-workers, starting with Joel (Martin Starr), an equally over-educated lover of Russian literature whose trademark affectation is smoking a pipe. Like James, Joel clearly is a nice guy ... albeit another one destined to remain on life's sidelines, unless he can get his act together.

James and Joel are impressed by Mike (Ryan Reynolds), both because this slightly older guy has a "real" job  park maintenance expert  and a worldly wise rep bolstered by the widespread rumor that he once jammed with Lou Reed. (Mottola's film is fueled by the necessary 1980s power ballads, along with well-remembered tracks by David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, The Cure and various indie bands.)

Mike is fully aware of the awe he commands, and takes full advantage; at the same time, Reynolds' performance is subtly shaded to allow us to see that he's no different than the others. Mike seems to know that he has peaked, whereas his slightly younger colleagues haven't yet lost their dreams.

Then there's Em, played with a saucy blend of sexual maturity and emotional angst by Kristen Stewart, Hollywood's newly minted teen superstar from Twilight. James can't take his eyes off her, and his sweet-natured innocence clearly appeals to Em, as well. Alas, her complicated life involves tension at home  she loathes her condescending step-mother  and mysterious late-night assignations that she takes pains to conceal.

This motley crew is shepherded by Adventureland managers Bobby and Paulette (Saturday Night Live alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), who take their leadership roles very seriously  with bits of business designed by Mottola for easy laughs  yet maintain an oddly protective embrace around their dweebie staff.

Such duality lifts Mottola's film above its reflexively loose-moraled brethren. Yes, these young people engage in plenty of bad behavior; marijuana is as common as the rancid corndogs, and Em seems perilously close to full-blown alcoholism. Frigo is crude and unpleasant enough to have escaped from a Farrelly brothers comedy, although he's the only one-note character in this bunch (deliberately so, I'm sure).

The rest have familiar issues and painful problems at home or elsewhere. Unlike the kids in Superbad, Mottola's monster 2007 directorial hit, these characters aren't exaggerated archetypes merely looking to get laid. They're seeking relevance, answers and the warmth of meaningful human contact. Love, even.

And they get shot down. A lot. Painfully. Never worse than when the park's notorious sexpot  Margerita Levieva, teeth-grindingly memorable as the narcissistic Lisa P  is involved. She's shallow in a way that's both funny and horrific: a destructive force of nature destined to ruin more lives than her likely IQ. We pray that James won't be one of the victims.

Mottola's reach occasionally exceeds his grasp. Em's furious tirade over another woman's thoughtless treatment of Joel is a clumsily staged interlude that reeks of contrivance, and Stewart can't sell the moment.

She's much better during all the scenes where the increasingly uncomfortable Em tries to rationalize her extra-curricular activities, or when exchanging catty remarks with her materialistic step-mother.

Then, too, Stewart and Eisenberg have an easy, aw-shucks chemistry; they're cute together, particularly when James repeatedly tries to fathom Em's mixed signals.

Fans of the TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared  made back when Judd Apatow still had perspective  could well imagine that Adventureland shows those same kids, a few years older, still trying to escape their assigned slots in the social pecking order. This film, happily, allows some of them the greater maturity and self-awareness to recognize that decisions made now will follow them forever: Some still won't be able to rise to the challenge, while others...

Well, that's why we have movies, right? To give hope to the geeks of this world.

And that would be most of us.

No comments:

Post a Comment