by Mel Valentin
If, at one time, you belonged (or someone thought you belonged) to the generation loosely described as “Gen X” by Douglas Copeland, then the 1980s was, if not pivotal, then significant decade in your personal and emotional life. Greg Mottola’s ("Superbad," "The Daytrippers") latest film, "Adventureland" is a semi-autobiographical comedy-drama set in the late 1980s. A much more personal film that Mottola’s last film, "Superbad," a well-received, commercial hit written by Seth Rogen and longtime friend and collaborator Evan Goldberg, "Adventureland" poignantly explores that nebulous, almost dreamlike period between college and adulthood, the last summer before the near total freedom associated with college life gives way to the responsibilities and compromises of adult life.For James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), the central character in Adventureland, responsibility comes sooner than he anticipated. Fresh out of college, he’s looking forward to spending his summer in Europe with one of his college friends before returning stateside to earn a master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. Over dinner, James’ parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick), give him some bad news: due to his father’s recent demotion, his parents can’t afford to help him with his summer trip to Europe. Helping him with grad school also looks unlikely. Back in his hometown, Pittsburgh, James’ struggles to find a job, any job, while fending off a (literally) nut-busting neighbor and former childhood friend, Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), and a growing sense of despair at his newly impoverished circumstances. James soon learns that his major in comparative literature has left him woefully unprepared to join the labor force.
"Nostalgia for the the 1980s has rarely been this entertaining."
Faced with rapidly dwindling prospects, James takes a job at the local Adventureland, a fading, semi-rundown amusement park operated by a husband-and-wife couple (and lifers) Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig). Like high school and college, the amusement park has a caste system. Despite his protestations, Bobby pegs James as a “Games” person (uncool), rather than a “Rides” person (cool). Another “Games” employee, Joel (Martin Starr), shows James the amusement park ropes, including how to avoid losing the “Big Ass Panda” that might, in turn, cost James his job. During an incident where James indeed loses a “Big Ass Panda,” he meets another games employee, Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart).
Em is apparently everything James is looking for in a girlfriend. She’s smart, cute, clever, and shares similar music tastes. But James, who seems to take his cues from Woody Allen’s nebbishy characters, is over-candid, over-eager, too open about his insecurities and his past romantic failings, confessing his lingering heartbreak over another girl to an incredulous Em and later, as they share drinks at a local bar, his virginity. To get over his inexperience, James leans on Connell (Ryan Reynolds), an Adventureland repairman and sometime musician who claims he once jammed with Lou Reed. Em, however, has her share of problems, including a troubled home life and at least one secret that might damage her relationship with James.
Adventureland closely follows the conventions of the teen-oriented, coming-of-age genre with its sexually inexperienced, socially awkward protagonist, geeky, outcast friends, the girl supposedly out of his league (except, of course, she’s not), and, of course, the usual set of life lessons that turn on self- respect and treating others, especially women, as ends, not means towards an end (e.g., sexual intercourse). But Mottola proves that genre, while limiting in some respects, is also freeing in others. James’ journey into adulthood is handled with a subtlety and understanding rare for Adventureland’s genre counterparts. Part of that, of course, depends on eliciting convincing performances from his young cast (which he does), but part of that is the attention to period detail, used for context rather than, as so often happens, in gag-happy comedies (where gags and jokes take precedence over characters and stories).
Moviegoers expecting to see another teen sex comedy like Mottola’s last film, Superbad will be sorely (if not gravely) disappointed. Although Mottola directed Superbad, Rogen and Goldberg were the real auteurs behind Superbad, even naming the two central characters after themselves. Adventureland doesn’t share Superbad’s emphasis on crude, rude, vulgar, profane, sex-based humor. While Mottola includes a few sex-based jokes, usually at the expense of the hapless James, most of the humor pivots on characters and situations rather than gross-out gags (although vomiting comes up, literally, two or three times). It’s to Mottola’s considerable credit that he doesn’t push the humor to obscene extremes or inserts sight gags periodically just to meet a pre-established, studio-mandated quota.
Adventureland excels in the use of period music to set the time, place, and mood, but also to give us glimpses into the characters state of mind. As long ago as 1987 might seem to some (younger) moviegoers, the love of music, the use of music to define yourself and, sometimes negatively, others, was just as prevalent. What wasn’t prevalent (or actually present in a recognizable form) was the Internet and the on-demand world it ushered in. Today, anyone can walk around with thousands of their favorite songs in a matchbox-sized music device. Vinyl records and cassettes were still common, as was the mix tape, a selection of songs painstakingly collected onto a non-durable audio cassette that was meant to express the recorder’s sentiments toward the recipient (or just his or her favorite songs).For the soundtrack, Mottola chose wisely from music available twenty-two years ago, including: Lou Reed (“Satellite of Love”), David Bowie (“Modern Love”), Big Star (“I’m in Love With a Girl”), The Cure (“Just Like Heaven”), INXS (“Don’t Change”), Outfield (“Your Love”), Crowded House (“Don’t Dream It’s Over”), New York Dolls (“Looking for a Kiss”), Husker Du (”Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely”), The Replacements (“Unsatisfied”), The Velvet Underground (“Pale Blue Eyes”), and Yo La Tengo (“Farewell Adventureland”). He also selected Falco’s “Rock Me, Amadeus” as the ubiquitous standard played over Adventureland’s speakers. It’s as annoying now as it was then, but for James and the other Adventureland employees, it becomes yet another daily challenge to overcome.
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originally posted: 04/03/09 11:00:00