Movie Review: Adventureland (2009)

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I spent this past weekend striving for fun diversions to entertain my visiting pre-kindergarten age niece and nephew. And after the obligatory trips to parks, McDonald's, children's museums, and Chuck E. Cheese-- we hit a local small-scale amusement park geared for youngsters who haven’t quite reached the age of the wild roller coasters and tilt-a-whirls.

Of course, the first order of business was to guarantee that the kids were the requisite height to relish in their three minutes of fun at two tickets a piece. But after the process of ensuring that all hands and feet were strapped inside each individual ride at the best angles for photos as they whisked by in toy planes and cars, I found myself equally fascinated by the employees of the local park as I was by its young attendees.

As a writer, I've always been overly observant and in fact annoyingly so as seldom a day goes by that my brain isn't working over time imagining what’s occurring just opposite me as I watch a couple at a restaurant or a man at a bus stop. Yet this particular interest in the diligent yet admittedly less than thrilled and some downright apathetic but on-task staff members running everything from the cheesy ring toss games to the carousel was most likely inspired by a recent press screening of writer/director Greg Mottola’s Adventureland.

Coming off the heels of his wildly popular Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen collaboration Superbad starring Michael Cera, on the surface it can be very easy to mistake Adventureland with Superbad. And this is especially true given not only its advertising and youthful appeal but also the fact that its lead actor Jesse Eisenberg (Rodger Dodger, The Hunting Party, The Squid and the Whale) could essentially serve as a mile-a-minute, sensitive and self-deprecating, charmingly awkward brother from another mother version of Superbad’s Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Juno, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist).

Yet, the recurring comment voiced by those exiting the theatre of Adventureland was precisely that it was not what a majority of the Arizona press expected going in. Basically, they assumed it would have much more in common with Superbad and the Apatow and Mottola television series Undeclared than it did with the film that first acquainted me with the writer/director—the Slamdance award winning Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci indie relationship ensemble piece, The Daytrippers which as Jason Geurrasio reported in indieWire is sadly “unavailable on DVD due to legal issues.”

Although it's been advertised and billed as though it were a 1980s era cousin to Superbad, Adventureland manages to put human comedy, pathos, melancholy, the double-edged sword of moving from post-graduate life to adulthood (with its combination of freedom mixed together with the terror of “what next?”) front and center. Impressively it does this by taking a bittersweet approach to the material that is wonderfully astute, surprising, and instantly relatable especially to those who remember the year of “Rock Me Amadeus” a.k.a. 1987 all too well.

Download the Soundtrack on iTunes

Falco - Adventureland (Original Soundtrack)

Fighting the urge of producers and studios whose inclination to move Adventureland to a contemporary setting since as Mottola told Guerrasio, “they didn't think young people would want to see a movie referencing another generation”—while the critical and box office success of Superbad helped ensure that “the money came fairly quickly,” the real fight came in Mottola’s conviction “to convince people to make the film as it was written.”

The semi-autobiographical and fast-paced quirky period piece, which Mottola penned “in the spirit of the short story,” started after a creative light bulb went off on the set of Undeclared as he and others tossed around tales about their lackluster first jobs. In addition to a great conversational topic, Mottola realized that he had a lot to go on from his own experience employed “in a Long Island amusement park while going to Columbia University in the late 1980s,” as the Miramax press release reveals.

Welcoming,what Mottola viewed as essentially a “therapeutic” opportunity to include “some of his influences, like his favorite boyhood bands the Velvet Underground, Violent Femmes and Talking Heads and films like Fellini’s ‘I, Vitelloni,’” he crafted this tale about Eisenberg’s recent, extremely bright college graduate who gets the shock of a lifetime following life in the suburban bubble. Fitting not only for the past but the present, his bubble bursts when he realizes his father has lost his a good deal of his salary during the economic hardship evidenced during the Reagan administration.

Unable to venture through what he hoped would be the ultimate coming-of-age abroad experience of backpacking through European hostels--he realizes instead that his liberal arts degree hasn’t prepared him with much “on-the-job” experience in the real world. Needing to find a job -- any job -- to cover the tuition for Columbia graduate school, Eisenberg’s James Brennan finds he’s just the right man for the gig at the local self-dubbed “funtastic” Pennsylvania amusement park, Adventureland. However, his new, overly eager employers Kristin Wiig (Ghost Town) and Bill Hader (Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express) only seem interested in the fact that he’s an applicant with a pulse.

Despite this, he isn’t given the much coveted assignment being in charge of rides like the legendary amusement park hottie Lisa P. Yet once he is pushed in the right direction to use a ridiculous amount of enthusiasm while operating games that are consistently rigged so that nobody will ever win the highly desired and expensive “giant ass panda” prize, things for James begin looking up when he finds a kindred spirit in the worldly, intelligent, and adorable Em (What Just Happened, In the Land of Women, and Twilight’s Kristen Stewart).

Stewart-- who just keeps getting better with each successive role following her breakthrough performance opposite Jodie Foster in David Fincher's Panic Room—is far more alive here playing a much older character than she was in the uninviting Twilight. Likewise, in her sweet, unassuming, casual way she manages to navigate the rocky terrain of heartache balancing the possibility of a new relationship with James while reconciling a beyond-just-friends complication with the married, older, musician janitor Ryan Reynolds (perfectly playing against that gentle Boy Scout-like role we fell in love with in Definitely, Maybe).

It’s this interpretation that seemed to have its roots in both Kate Hudson’s supporting role in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous and most likely the film that had inspired that one via Shirley MacLaine's impressive turn in Billy Wilder's Oscar winner The Apartment. Moreover, it's Stewart’s ability to add another layer to what could easily have been an underwritten role that gives Adventureland an unexpected heart that sneaks up on you as the film which begins with the promise of a gag-a-minute suddenly evolves into an exploration of as Mottola notes to Miramax, the type of film that “fits into this very small genre of stories that are about the worst summer ever turning into one of the most transformative experiences of your life.”

Filled with a tremendous ‘80s soundtrack (and way too many opportunities for “Rock Me Amadeus” which is nicely balanced out by an atypical musical decision to instead emphasize ‘70s era Lou Reed and Violent Femmes), Adventureland is Mottola’s cinematic attempt to craft a work that would feel like a pop song in the way that makes you think twice about “the emotions the characters are going through [which] might seem incredibly commonplace, almost superficial.”

While, to some the movie seemed like a harmless trifle or a forgetful piece of cinematic cotton candy, upon closer inspection, I was deeply impressed by his complete respect and understanding of the characters depicted as—much like a pop song, Mottola argued that, “at the same time, these things are enormously powerful when you're going through them. Finding your first love, losing that person, being disappointed, being deeply disillusioned by love, gaining an understanding of what intimacy actually requires -- these things have this huge effect of your life.”

Although it won’t strike the same Superbad chord with the core demographic the advertisers are shooting for in its campaign, much like last year’s overlooked intelligent charmer Charlie Bartlett, Adventureland is one that manages—despite its more than twenty year old setting—to tap right into the same ageless emotions we all experience in a way we don’t normally see being addressed with this level of articulation, introspection, humor, and respect for the age group it’s representing.

Or in other words, next time you’re at a cheap amusement park, look a little closer at the kid trying desperately to avoid handing out those “giant ass pandas." In doing so, perhaps you'll see the ambition, frustration, and yearning in their eyes as they tear our tickets and remind us to keep our children’s hands and feet inside the car at all times to sit back and enjoy the ride as hopefully they will once they venture out of the park and into the real world.

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