Monday, December 21, 2009

DVD Review: Adventureland

What a breath of fresh air this movie is. Finally we have a movie about young people in their 20's who aren't obsessed with getting high, drinking, and having sex; these are things that just happen. Writer/Director Greg Mottola has created a love song to those summer nights where everything seems easier and more romanticized than the other three seasons. This is a rare film about young people who are more concerned about getting a summer job so they can save up for Graduate school than about saving money for a big party while their parents are out of town. Similar to last years surprising Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist this is a film that is more about younger people who are more interested in what's inside someone's mind instead of someone's pants.

James Brennan (the awkward Jesse Eisenberg) has finished college and heads home to Pittsburgh for the summer. His plan for graduation was to tour Europe with his friend, but his father has been demoted at work and can't afford to send James to Europe. This doesn't seem so bad to James until he realizes that his parents will not be able to help him with an apartment and tuition for Columbia University. Seemingly for the first time James must financially fend for himself and get a summer job so he can afford Grad school. This plot development could have set up a horribly executed comedy about James trying to find a job in all kinds wacky places that are beneath him.

Instead James goes to the local amusement park Adventureland and tries to get a job running the rides, but his boss Bobby (the always wonderful Bill Hader) puts him at games instead. Mottola immediately shows James as a kind of snob who would rather work on rides (the cooler of the jobs), but is forced to work on games (where the nerds work) because Bobby has "already pulled out the application for games." This is where Adventureland could have gone all wrong. I was half expecting a slobs vs. snobs type film where the "games" people snicker and sneer at the well-to-do "rides" people, all the while the better-off James would have to betray his own "kind" and side with the slobs. But thank God Mottola is too smart for that. What we get instead is a beautiful elegy to the summer nights that Mottola must have experienced growing up in Pittsburgh.

James meets some interesting people that he connects to because they're just as intellectual as him. Joel (Martin Starr from Knocked Up) shows him the ropes off the job and is an intellectual (as intellectual as a 20-something can be) who recounts Gogol and smokes a pipe, Em (Kristen Stewart) is a cool Emo girl (when Emo was just taking root) who James is immediately drawn to, and Mike (Ryan Reynolds in a great role) is the repair man that all the guys and girls gravitate towards because of his sage like aura and dubious history as a musician who once played with Lou Reed.

It's no surprise to any film buff that Em and James will try to hook up, but what is surprising is how Mottola handles it. Em is more complicated than she lets on, and there may be something between her and the married Mike. Much like a lot of the tropes used in a film of this ilk (young people smoking weed/drinking/trying to hook up) Mottola handles them as if they're old hat to these people.  These are just things they do, and Mottola doesn't draw a lot of attention to it as a lot of other filmmakers might. He understands that the joke is not about the weed, or the awkward attempts to get drunk or get laid (after all these characters are all college graduates or finishing up their undergrad, so it's safe to assume they've gotten all that awkwardness of trying new things out of the way), but the joke is in human behavior.  There's a surprising amount of nuance in this film.

Back to the story: James hates his job at first, but learns to love it because of Em and the friends he makes there. But what's most interesting about the film is how Mottola shows James as a character who is essentially "doing time" for the summer in order to leave his hometown to start his real life in a real city, New York. This is a coming of age story that deals with love and the ambiguous questions that abound once you've finished college, and that's why I loved this film so much because it's willing to deal with questions that are usually ignored in films like this for raunchy jokes that fall flat. Mottola did the same thing in the surprising Superbad, which was obviously raunchy, but in that film buried beneath the gratuitous language and fascination with dicks were some bigger questions about how we handle post-High School life and leaving friends we've had since Jr. High School. Mottola does the same thing here in Adventureland, he takes what could have been a one-note story about a preppy kid who has to work at a job that's "beneath" him, but instead he offers up a film experience that is actually quite poignant and elegiac.

The summer feeling Mottola's film evokes I'm sure is palpable for almost anyone. I didn't have a seasonal amusement park to hang out as young 20-something, but the summer-nights feel that Mottola elicits is universal, and I definitely felt a pang of nostalgia throughout the entire viewing experience. By the end of the film James is hit with some news that alters his plans, and he must make a decision to leave home or continue to waste his time in Pittsburgh. Adventureland is a bildungsroman in that regard: James has to make an important life decision by the end of the film, and through that decision he's learned a little bit more about his hometown.

One of the storylines I haven't talked much about is the relationship between James and Em. What's refreshing about this rather ordinary plot strand is that Mottola handles it beautifully by pairing up two characters that are intellectually sexy. Eisenberg is like an Ivy League version of Michael Cera, both employ the kind of awkward second guessing that can grate on me, but somehow Mottola gets this to work for Eisenberg. So too does he get Stewart's dreadful "woe is me" persona to work in this context, and she's actually tolerable in this film. I mentioned last years Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist earlier, and I think that is a perfect example of how successfully a romantic storyline between young people can be handled, and Mottola succeeds at this. When the inevitable rift occurs between Em and James there aren't woeful scenes of emoting and teenage angst, instead the characters vocalize their frustrations just enough to make it sound realistic. Mottola also uses music to great effect throughout the movie, especially throughout the relational arc of Em and James' courtship.

The other acting is great, too. The aforementioned Bill Hader never fails to make me laugh. He and Kristin Wiig who play the husband and wife that run Adventureland have some great moments that seamlessly flow with the rest of the film. When I first saw the two of them pop up on screen I was afraid that they would feel like they were in a totally different movie; however, I thought that Mottola used them just enough, and with great results. Ryan Reynolds also has a nice supporting role that has more depth to it than we're accustomed to with characters like his. He has an aura about him that draws James towards him, but there's also something else about him that calls his character into question, and that's one of the surprising things about the film, everything is handled with more care and depth than I was anticipating.

I was stunned by Adventureland and how deep it was for the type of film I was expecting. Here's a film that perfectly evokes that summertime nostalgia we've all experienced growing up. Mottola's film is universal in that sense; his experiences were from the 80's and involved a seasonal amusement park, my experiences were from the early 2000's and would involve much different music than what is used on Mottola's soundtrack, but that's what's so wonderful about the film: everyone can bring their own experiences to it. I love when movies surprise me like this and take me to a very specific time and place that is obviously important to the filmmaker. 

I also appreciated how Mottola, like he did in Superbad, ends his film on a somewhat ambiguous note with the two characters looking at each other and not knowing what the future holds, but they know that the decision they've made is the right one for the moment (another aspect of Mottola's films I love so much, he understands that making movies about teenagers and 20-somethings you have to deal with the logic of living in the moment, because that's how most people that age live, moment by moment). That's not something you often get in these kinds of comedies, and I think it's safe to say that Mottola is operating on a whole different level than his contemporaries like Judd Apatow and Jodie Hill.  The authenticity of the film is evident throughout, and because of the authenticity and care Mottola puts into Adventureland you have a very personal film that still manages to tap into the universal nostalgia of summertime during your young twenties. Adventureland is a surprisingly warm and charming film.

Extra Stills:


  1. I enjoyed this movie when I saw it in theaters, but the review I wrote for my school paper (damn you to hell, 600-word limit) was really basic, and when I saw it again, I was overwhelmed by just how good it is. I don't know if I could honestly call it one of the best movies of the year, but at this point I'm tempted to put it in my top ten over a number of films I rated higher.

    Like you said, what makes it so great is its realistic approach to youth. I guess I was caught up in the "He's just trying to be Michael Cera!11!" hype when I first saw it, because when I caught it on home video that scene where he tells Em that he could have had sex once but didn't, not because of some embarrassing, high-comedic act but because he just didn't love the girl, is maybe the single most original and delightful scene of the year.

    And, like I said in my re-review of the film, this belongs on a short list with Dazed and Confused and Almost Famous in terms of its ability to perfect evoke a time period with music. In a year where Quentin Tarantino put out a movie and thus staked a claim to the best use of music by default, both uses of Pale Blue Eyes were just perfect.

    Damn it, Kevin, now I have to watch this again. I had plans today.

  2. I really liked this one as well. It reminded me of early Michael Chabon, and not just because it was about Jewish People living in Pittsburgh/

  3. Love this film and have watched it many times over and it still holds up. I would also like to mention that the film has a killer soundtrack of fantastic alterna-bands from the late '80s. As soon as I heard Paul Westerberg and The Replacements opening up the film, I knew this was going to be a keeper. Plus, you've got Husker Du and The Jesus and Mary Chain!

  4. Jake:

    I'm right there with ya on the charming pull that this movie has. It's a great look at youth because it doesn't condescend. I like your comparisons to Dazed and Confused and Almost Famous. I'm glad you liked the review enough to want to watch the movie again, hehe. Thanks for dropping by!

  5. EDJ:

    I like your comparison to early Chabon. Thanks for the comment.

  6. J.D.:

    I'm glad you bring up the soundtrack, because it's a vitally important part of the film, and I stupidly omitted that aspect of the film in my review. It's interesting that in back-to-back years now we've gotten Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and Adventureland, two films that define their characters and setting with music appropriate to those things. It just goes to show how important music is to film in evoking a specific mood or feeling.

    Thanks for the comment.

  7. I love this film also, though it appears it will narrowly miss my top ten list, though I haven't finalized that yet either. It's a far more perceptive and engaging film that 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, methinks, and this exceptional piece does it full justice.

  8. Wow, apparently I completely underestimated this movie as "just another teen comedy". I liked your comparisons to Nick and Noras Infinite Playlist, I was also pleasently surprised by that one.

    Ill be renting this one soon to check it out, thanks for the informative review.

  9. Sam:

    Thanks for the comment! Good to have you back here. I agree with you about how this film is saying a lot more than the much flimsier 500 Days of Summer.

  10. TFC:

    Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad this review will point you in the direction of this fine film. Like I said in the review, it's so refreshing to have a film about twentysomethings actually BE about something. Enjoy...and thanks for the comment.