Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow, and Jason Segel are all given a special thanks from director Greg Mottolla in the end credits of Adventureland. These guys must have given amazing emotional support to the Superbad director, because Adventureland, though marketed as another product of the Apatow Comedy Factory, very refreshingly goes its own way.
Mottolla is a mysterious guy to me. He obviously has chops when it comes to comedy–he was a regular director on shows like Undeclared and Arrested Development, and then there was the massive success of Superbad, which was pretty much a home run on every level. But I was curious about how he was going to capitalize on its success; would he direct another Apatow comedy, or go his own way?
Apatow’s name is not on Adventureland, but the marketing team seems to have wished it was. When I saw the first trailer for the film, I was taken aback at how much they over-emphasized the Superbad connection. Obviously, you have to score points by mentioning that your director also did one of the biggest comedy hits of the last fifteen years, but they took it to ridiculous lengths–after awhile, I got the impression that Bill Hader (Officer Slater from Superbad) and Kristen Wigg (from SNL and the anxious T.V. exec from Knocked Up), playing the cooky operators of the titular theme park, had near lead parts.
I can understand the motivation: anything with similarity to an Apatow project has a better chance of scoring at the box office. Hopefully audience members won’t be too disappointed to find out that Adventureland isn’t cut solely (or prominently) from the cloth of raunchy, improvisational comedy, but is closer to an indie drama.
Could the movie have succeeded (it remains to be seen if it will, but it is opening at the right time) if they had marketed it for what it was? I seriously doubt it, and it was probably a good decision to bury the fact that this movie isn’t, nor is it trying to be, very funny. The comedy exists on the periphery, and at the center is a love story between two really smart, cool characters that you can imagine wanting to hang out with in real life. I guess the movie falls into some vague category of “teen coming-of-age story,” but it is in line with movies like Garden State, Reality Bites, and Dazed and Confused, all about youths wrestling with life issues and romance, often amid a haze of pot smoke and a cool rock soundtrack.
The hero of the piece is James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), an unassuming twenty-something whose post-graduate hopes hit a speedbump when his father loses his job. James was planning on attending Columbia in the fall to pursue journalism, but paying tuition now means he will have to get a summer job while back home in Pittsburgh. He has never had a job before, and his degree in Renaissance Studies leaves few promising avenues open.
This leads him to Adventureland, the town’s sprawling amusement park and haven for disaffected youth in need of mindless employment. Most of Adventureland’s workers sit morosely on the sides of game booths, handing out prizes with detached misery and griping about their situation. The film is set in 1987, but its a shame to know that, in our current economic situation, jobs like this are a luxury for some.
James walks in with little enthusiasm (Hader actually has to coach him in how to energetically announce a horse-racing game) but soon submits to the quirky virtues of the park, most of which come through the staff: there is Joel (Martin Starr), the articulate, cynical lit major, droll and detached about everything, Firgo (Matt Bush), who likes smacking people in the nuts, especially James, as a greeting, and Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park maintenance man who plays in a band and brags that he once jammed with Lou Reed. True or untrue? Wonder, wonder, wonder…..
Then there’s Em (Kristen Stewart), the true rarity for a movie everyman: a girl who is smart, good-looking, available and actually likes you. Available is in quotes for reasons I won’t go into, but she and James strike up a sweet romance–both are smart, articulate, likable and capable of contemplating deep topics. Em surpasses him in sexual experience (much is made, unsurprisingly, of James’s virginity), but doesn’t dismiss him as a hopeless schlub. We sense that he is the first stable thing to happen to her in a long time, and his decency is a breath of fresh air.
Movies like this travel on such a formulaic path that it isn’t really necessary to fill in the rest of the plot, except to say that Mottolla, also the screenwriter, surrounds the romance with many interesting characters and funny incidents. I particularly liked the bit about the Giant Ass Panda, the best prize in the park that no one is ever supposed to win. Though the comedy in the film is pure window-dressing, it is still done well–Hader and Wigg are particularly well used as a married couple so accustomed to each other’s wierdness that even Hader’s strange burst of energy when announcing the horse-racing game is greeted with a nostaligiac “this is how we met” from Wigg.
Most of the film relies on the chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart, whose personas contrast each other interestingly; he, fast-talking, manic, and self-conscious, finds a willing counterpart in her, cool and smooth but obviously housing deep wounds. Eisenberg, so good in The Squid and the Whale, fits nicely into the twenty-something everyman role; he shares with Michael Cera the ability to seem sincere even when he is making the gravest mess of things. And Stewart, who broke out with Twilight, reveals herself to be so much better than that material; in her early, getting-to-know-you scenes with Eisenberg, she projects such an air of naturalism, not afraid to respond to odd comments with confused expressions. In later, more dramatic scenes, she retains this realism, and doesn’t come off with silly theatrics but with an authenticy that helps the audience identify with her.
All told, this movie was just a good time. I really enjoyed the performances and the way that, even though Mottolla possessed these great comedians, he didn’t feel the need to set them loose on every scene. Ryan Reynolds, so hilarious in movies like Waiting, doesn’t play Connell as a whacky sitcom character but as a real guy who has been in a lame job for too long. I was impressed that Motolla was perceptive and caring enough to portray elements like this. Even when Anti-Semitism dips into the story, it doesn’t fall out of a tree but comes from a realistic place. I went in expecting something raunchy and silly and was surprised that I got something vaguely resembling life.
A word about the music in the film. It’s awesome. The film is set in ’87, but Motolla frames his characters as holdovers from the greatness of the ’70s. There is a particularly nice scene where James and Em, driving down a bridge in Pittsburgh, listen to “Pale Blue Eyes” by the Velvet Underground, and feel compelled to pull over for their first kiss. The Replacements are also used well for the first time in I don’t know how long, opening the film with “Bastards of Young” and piping up with “Unsatisfied” near the end. There is also a great scene set to the Crowded House version of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” where Em and James watch fireworks on the fourth of July–I never knew I could like that song, but after that scene, I can’t wait to hear it again.
Oh, and Kristen Stewart (though possessing beaver teeth) is really cute. I had to write that. Quaid has a thing for her. Out.