AdventurelandReviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 04/03/09 15:00:00
SCREENED AT THE 2009 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: There may be no greater symbol for the state of nostaglia than the amusement park. Not so much the Six Flags, Kings Islands or even Disneylands of the world, but the traveling kind; the ones that pop up in your town for a few days to provide a little bit of excitement through thrill rides, games of skill or, if youíre lucky, your first kiss. I remember the freedom of riding my dirt bike a few short blocks from home just to check out the construction of the event and revel in the possibility of a new ride making its play for my unlimited wristband. How cool it would be to work there, luring in customers to shoot the star with a pellet gun and being the guy to give patrons an extra, faster turn on the Amor Express. Of course, you would just be the guy hitting buttons and waiting for suckers. All of the work. None of the joy. Thatís part of the notion that Greg Mottola is trying to nail with his autobiographical Ď80s slice-of-life, Adventureland, but the only real nostaglia on display (much like the overplayed rock soundtrack of the parkís speakers) is the feeling that youíve just seen and heard this story all before.Poor James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is just coming to the realization that a college degree doesnít exactly mean an instant wristband into the workforce. With his middle class suburban family unable to send him overseas for the summer, he gets a job at Adventureland, run by the husband & wife team of Bobby & Paulette (Bill Hader & Kristen Wiig). Further disenchanted that heís chosen to run games rather than rides (which, to me, would seem like the more entertaining gig), James is given the lowdown on the park by the barely emotive, Joel (Martin Starr), which is enough to make anyone quit after a few minutes. James sticks around though long enough to find another fellow lethargic in Em (Kristen Stewart) who wastes no time in taking an interest in him and giving him an embarrassing erection in her pool.
Not everyone in Adventureland carries themselves as somehow above their work. The cool kids at the park are represented by Lisa P (Margarita Levieva, removing her bully hoodie from The Invisible to show off her beauty), the dreamgirl sexpot that every dweeb would love to take a shot at. Sheís at least age appropriate for the wannabes. Thereís also Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the parkís repairman who has coasted on his rep for playing backup on a major record. As the married, blue collar dude with a little flash of success, he works in time between repairs to offer semi-sage advice to James, which may or may not complicate things considering heís carrying on an affair with Em. Will James be just another guy with pride or will he be a man and win the girl of his dreams?
Those are questions Adventureland isnít exactly interested in answering but rather playing out in tune with the films of its era. Itís not satire by any means or a counterargument that the films of John Hughes were teenage fantasies in a world of broken dreams. Itís a boy-meets-girl, boy-&-girl-get-involved-with-third-parties-so-they-can-argue-and-realize-they-want-each-other story. And a central flaw of the film is that neither the boy nor the girl are interesting enough so we wonder why they would be interested in the other to begin with. Availability, I suppose. James is your atypical awkward slice of lovelorn white bread. Em suffers from stepmommy issues and the kind of bad judgment that guys are often called to the carpet to have their noses rubbed in.
Adventureland certainly wasnít designed to be the kind of laugh-a-minute riot that Mottolaís last film, Superbad, was. Take Hader and Wiig out of the equation and this is a film that falls squarely in the drama section, which puts it in the unfortunate position of having to work harder for us to give a damn about these people. As a budding romance it possesses none of the charms of Cameron Crowe or even John Hughes who, beyond living within the framework of cliches and happy endings, had an ear for young peopleís ideas of what new love was all about. Mottolaís script, by contrast, is so desperate for earnestness that we become that significant other recognizing that our suitor is saying precisely what it thinks we need to hear to fall in love with it. Maybe youíre just an easy lay by nature, but Iíve heard enough movie lines in my day to know when its coming from the heart as opposed to just the page.
Eisenberg, despite being around longer than his predescessor, has the ineviable task of following Michael Cera from Superbad. Comparisons are way too easy even if the performances are of vastly separate tones. Where Cera had a more natural sincerity in his readings and awkward pauses, Eisenberg (who fit so perfectly into this type of role in 2002ís Roger Dodger) is using the playbook of a drama student who hasnít quite captured what was so engaging about Hugh Grantís early work. Kristen Stewart, meanwhile, has shown her limited cards too early into her burgeoning career. Her transition from Jodie Fosterís adrogynous-looking daughter in Panic Room to blossoming young woman has been filled with one disillusioned teen to the next, culminating in last yearís Twilight debacle. Stewart would be well-advised to find a character as interesting as her charactersí think they are and someone who just doesnít scrunch their face and do a hair flip every time they are making a decision. Ryan Reynolds is charming enough in a way-underwritten role that should have served as the filmís backbone; a guy making temporary fixes on broken down symbols of youth. Only Hader and Wiig standout as the filmís sitcom neighbors popping in when the film threatens never to recover from its faux seriousness. Haderís freakouts at the horse game and towards a potential James pummeler are the best moments and further advance the theory that heís the new Dan Aykroyd, able to fit perfectly within the skin of any comic character in any medium.After my screening of Adventureland at Sundance, I remember warming up to its tone more in the second half then its strained beginning. Alas, by the next day I was unable to remember exactly why that was. What I do remember is that while I was able to accept Mottolaís 180-degree turn from Superbad (in style, if not subject matter), I still didnít believe in the actual feelings on display. We understood Jonah Hillís feelings towards his rejection and why a girl might be into Michael Cera. They were also smart, lovable, identifiable characters in a film that had shades of darkness maybe not recognized on first viewing. Adventureland seems like its in a constant shade of darkness, with a summer in constant overcast reflecting only the light of its bored day-to-day employees. Only it never commits to that darkness and wants its characters to have their day in the sun despite the clouded reality they live in.
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