REVIEW: Adventureland [2009]

“James—am I pronouncing that right, James?”

Let’s just say that The Daytrippers has just gone to the top of my must-see list of films. After the fun that was Superbad and now the heartfelt homage to summer jobs during college with Adventureland, Greg Mottola is a force to be reckoned with. His handle on ensemble casts is fantastic, getting some great performances, introducing new faces, and making each actor project authenticity. Superbad was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, lending it more of a raunchiness and absurdity, basing itself in a heightened high school reality, while Adventureland marks Mottola’s sophomore effort as writer. It is completely relatable, mirroring the audience’s experiences post college/high school, looking for the cash to go away for school. Each character is written so fully that even the periphery roles come off the screen as three-dimensional. The film may be about James Brennan and his quest to go to Columbia in the fall, but it is also a time capsule of the 80s and what it means to be on the cusp of adulthood.

Everyone is a child, at varying degrees of maturity—and age plays no factor in this statement. The biggest kids, to me, are actually Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s Bobby and Paulette. They run the titular amusement park with a penchant for fun, safety, and litter-free pavement. Depending on circumstances, Hader can go from serious conversation about the books and numbers to a crazed, bat-wielding bouncer protecting his employees without threat of recourse. This is his park and he knows the score—what the kids want, what the games should give them, and what immature punks need to be shown in order to behave. Hader is slowly becoming one of the best supporting comics in the business, I just hope he doesn’t get offered a mediocre starring vehicle with bad writing to “launch” his career further, he deserves better. Both he and Wiig show their love for each other as well as the park constantly, uncaring about how juvenile they may appear at times. They take it to 10 at every step.

The worst culprits on the scale of immaturity are the parents of the park employees. In order for a film like this to work, you need a reason for these kids to be working at a dead-end job for the summer. My one complaint about the film is the fact that Mottola relies on financial status to explain it. Jesse Eisenberg’s James must work there because he has had a golden spoon his whole life and now sees it disappear as his father gets transferred to a lower paying job; Kristen Stewart’s Em works there to fight against the money and status her lawyer father has given her and her mother-in-law lives for; and the others in this ragtag bunch of minimum-wagers are there either because they enjoy it, their families don’t have the money to keep them from it, or their dreams have been postponed to stay close to home and help out. I guess money isn’t the worst thing he could use to get them all together, this is the 80s after all, it’s just a bit contrived that you have two guys heavily influenced in literature, (one who reads Shakespeare for fun sometimes and another majoring in Russian with a love for Gogol), working together at a crappy job. But then one came from money and one did not, so it might not be as stereotypical as first thought.

Back to the parents, though, they are horribly selfish and spoiled brats. Never taking into consideration their children, each either ignore their kids, become oblivious to their actions, worry about their own finances instead of living up to promises, let their son take the fall for a bottle of alcohol in the car, of just plain not care at all. None of these “adults” have any redeeming qualities; they have ruined their lives and are all on track to ruin that of their offspring. Adventureland becomes a haven for all the kids to be themselves and experience more of a parental influence from boss Bobby then at home. It is a decade of greed and none are safe from it. While the adults pursue money, the kids pursue sex and drugs.

Mottola could have just made this film into the antics at an amusement park. While there are definitely instances of that, especially when the employees are drunk or high, he never cops-out from telling his coming of age story. For every moment of park games cheating, gluing googly eyes to plush bananas, or fights with the locals there are three plus instances of poignancy, whether they be joy or heartbreak, both common emotions for all twenty-somethings. Love is on display at every turn in all its complicated glory. With lovelorn, sheltered guys like James; awkward intellectuals like Martin Starr’s Joel; virgin teases in dance-fanatic Margarita Levieva’s Lisa P; Stewart’s young woman in desperate need for attention and affection; and Ryan Reynolds’ marriage-trapped lothario, pain becomes a common factor. Feelings are trampled upon, ignored, and bolstered, mistakes are made and either regretted or redeemed. We all act like juveniles at times, wanting to be the center of attention, but with that comes those moments where we come together and stand up for those we care about.

The film itself is well shot and constructed, including many sequences of pure visual joy such as an extended bumper car scene. Complete with a stellar 80s soundtrack, (I could have done with less “Rock Me Amadeus”), Adventureland encapsulates a feeling of nostalgia for a time we all leave behind us once our careers begin. Some live out the dream and some hold on for too long knowing it will never come to fruition. This fact isn’t expressed more than with the relationship between Reynolds’ Connell and Eisenberg’s James. The two are on opposite paths, one constantly looking to the past for a love he can’t have in his marriage and the other looking towards the future for a world of complete happiness. They cross paths often, Stewart’s troubled and confused love interest in the middle, but rather than exploit the dynamic for over-the-top fireworks and violence, Mottola keeps both in character. By acknowledging who they are and what they stand for, the final confrontation between them could not have been more appropriate. Eisenberg is proving his worth as a deserving actor in Hollywood and Reynolds shows once more how nuanced and good he can be.

Adventureland 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photograph:
[1] Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan, Martin Starr as Joel Schiffman Photo credit: Abbot Genser/Courtesy of Miramax Films.
[2] Bill Hader as Bobby, Kristen Wiig as Paulette Photo credit: Abbot Genser/Courtesy of Miramax Films.

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