Thursday, April 9, 2009

Adventureland (2009)

Films like Adventureland are thrilling in their specificity. This is not exactly neo-neo-realism, but it's a pitch-perfect story of a young man’s summer job at an amusement park, a film that perfectly captures the melancholy rhythms of a minimum wage job. The customers are bizarre, rude, baffling, and funny. There’s long periods of downtime, rambling conversations about pop culture, philosophy and gossip, and, in the accurate running joke, the same song seems to be played over and over and over again.

This is James (Jesse Eisenberg, performing as a cross between Woody Allen and Michael Cera) and his existence the summer of 1987. Writer-director Greg Mottola has created a film of moods and rhythm, finding moments of fleeting beauty and awkward humor, perfectly creating the kind of nervous, half-ironic ways of speaking that people of a certain age have, the sense that the whole world may be judging your next sentence. James knows what he wants to do with his life but is caught in a sense of mid-schooling confusion. He sees his life closing in around him, sees that it’s time to stop dreaming about what he wants to be when he grows up because he’s almost there.

Mottola lets us get to know the other characters, and I mean characters, who work at the park including the Gogol-reading, pipe-smoking, Slavic languages major (Martin Starr), the maintenance man (Ryan Reynolds) who plays in a local band and is rumored to have once jammed with Lou Reed, and the eccentric owners, (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, very funny but somewhat underdeveloped and underused). The employee of most interest to James is Em, played by Kristen Stewart with the warmth and genuine fragile emotion she brought to Into the Wild but lacked in Twilight. Em and James strike up a flirtation with the thrilling, romantic edge of a burgeoning friendship that may become more.

The characters are truthfully drawn, and compassionately followed by the film which presents bad decisions in a nonjudgmental way and good ones in an ambivalent light. This is a film with its pulse on the feelings of youth, the confusion about purpose and the thrill of discovering new things, or even just the old things with new people. The film has humor that bubbles up naturally out of the characters and their situations rather than relying on coasting from gag to gag. There’s a natural, conversational, anecdotal feel much of the film, which oozes 80's pop as it watches its characters interact and develop over the course of the summer.

Yes, this is one of those “and that was the summer that changed my life” movies, the yuppie-white-boy-comes-of-age variety, or at least it starts out on that path. It doesn’t end up there, however, as it turns out his life isn’t changed, or at least not in all the ways we’d expect. It's an unexpectedly touching and tender comedy that has an impact that snuck up on me. This is the kind of movie that calmly observes a young man in transition, enjoys hanging out with his new friends, listening to cool music, admiring girls, watching fireworks, gossiping, eating, romancing (or trying), getting high (or trying), talking philosophy, art, theology, family, and working every day running rigged carnival games while planning for the future. This is a movie that captures this type of employment but also captures a state of mind, a sense that it’s hard to shift while the ground is shifting under you.

Note: It’s R-rated for a reason – it certainly reflects this kind of reality – but it’s not coarse for coarse sake like so many other films that think profanity is a suitable substitute for a punch-line (I’m looking at you Step-Brothers).

1 comment:

  1. this is such an under appreciated film, it's absolutely pitch perfect. I'm only 25, but this is the first film thats made me feel nostalgic.
    "The film has humor that bubbles up naturally out of the characters and their situations rather than relying on coasting from gag to gag". Nailed it.

    Great blog by the way, just stumbled across it.