Friday, April 17, 2009

Adventureland


April 17, 2009

Adventureland (2009) ***1/2
Directed by Greg Mattola


Adventureland’s advertising opposes its true identity and appeal. Its trailer hams up its stoner comedy and sexual humor, presumably attempting to cash in on the success of films like Knocked Up and Superbad. Despite being directed by Greg Mattola, this isn’t Superbad Part 2—there’s not enough raunch and much more understatement. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that Mattola wrote Adventureland’s screenplay, which wasn’t the case with Superbad. This just might account for the genuine nostalgia that exists within Mattola’s breezy, relatively mature screenplay. Granted, there’s enough pot smoked by the employees of Adventureland Amusement Park to lower everyone’s IQ a couple of points. Still, thankfully, there are significantly less adolescent-masculine, sex-obsessed, fowl-mouthed utterances than there would be in a script by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg or Judd Apatow, and you know what? That’s just fine with me!

On the other hand, Adventureland could use a generous dose of Rogen, Goldberg and Apatow’s penchant for eliciting numerous laugh-out-loud moments. Don’t get me wrong—Adventureland is funny at times, though there weren’t nearly as many screaming laughs as I’d have liked or expected. By the reaction of the audience with whom I saw the film, I wasn’t alone in my disappointment. I laughed the hardest out of everyone around me, and that’s not really saying all that much. Once again, had the trailer been more honest, it’s possible that less people would have walked in expecting such broad comedy.

Jesse Eisenberg from The Squid and the Whale plays virgin James Brennan, a comparative literature and Renaissance studies college graduate who is unexpectedly required to take a summer job at a pathetic local amusement park in order to save money for his upcoming fall semester as a graduate student at Columbia University in NYC. Assigned by the park’s two uncomfortably enthusiastic managers, played charmingly by Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, to work the games booths, James meets and befriends several members of the cynical, jaded staff. One especially troubled young woman named Em (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) quickly catches James’ eye, and the two hit it off quite well. In a way, they’re perfect for each other. She’s experienced with sex and relationships, while he’s a decent, sensitive guy who would treat her well—that is, if she has enough self-worth to let him in.

As Adventureland progresses, we learn two sad facts about Em’s life. First, her mother died two years earlier only to be replaced by an unstable, mean-spirited stepmother. When James asks Em why she works at the park since she doesn’t seem to be financially hurting, Em responds by saying that it gets her out of her house. Second, Em has been having a secret, unhealthy affair with an older married man named Mike Connell who also works at the park as the maintenance man. He’s played perfectly by Ryan Reynolds, who wisely does not condemn Connell in his performance. If he wasn’t toying with Em’s emotions, it’s quite possible that I would have really liked his character. Reynolds could have all too easily treaded into cartoon villain territory. My respect for him as an actor has increased significantly.

Mattola’s screenplay shifts nicely between narrative progression and moments when its characters simply make memories. The year, by the way, is 1987, and there’s just the right amount of eighties nostalgia without it becoming distracting like it was with the nineties in the awful The Wackness. Girls wear spandex and have hoop earrings, and there’s an ongoing joke about the song “Rock Me Amadeus” playing over and over in the park much to James’ torture; yet, we’re not hit over the head with parody after parody concerning the “me decade.” The eighties setting seamlessly melds with every other detail in an appropriately organic way. Having worked at an amusement park myself, I could absolutely relate with Jesse’s run ins with obnoxious park patrons willing to act like jerks demanding to receive a crappy stuffed animal. Sure, these experiences might seem awful at the time, but I can’t help but laugh when I reminisce about them. Mattola’s nostalgic joy comes through loud and clear when Jesse deals with encounters like these.

The supporting characters are uneven in their effectiveness. Some are underwritten, such as Em’s dad and stepmom, Jesse’s parents and pretty-girl Lisa P. One is overwritten—James’ friend Joel, played by Martin Starr. For the first half of the film, Joel seems like nothing more than a pipe-smoking foil for James to have discussions with concerning Em and young adulthood. Then, suddenly, he’s given his own storyline involving a make out session followed by heartbreak which subsequently requires him to quit his job. The decision to focus on Joel was not a good one since his character isn’t all that likable, and Starr’s performance adds absolutely nothing to make Joel distinctive one way or the other.

Adventureland’s least pleasant element is the inclusion of James’ monstrous childhood friend Tommy Frigo, played by Matt Bush, who is most known as the kid from the AT&T commercials who argues with his mom because he doesn’t appreciate his family’s roll-over minutes. Frigo’s trademark is that he constantly punches James in the groin. Frigo’s final scene leads me to believe that Mattola wrote the character in order for us to dislike him. Still, every moment he was on screen made me angrier and angrier, and in a film striving to be light and funny, Frigo proves to be a huge miscalculation.

Eisenberg is a talented actor, and though it does seem like he’s trying to channel Michael Cera from Superbad as the blueprint for James’ mannerisms and vocal idiosyncrasies, Eisenberg does make the performance his own, proving that he can carry an entire film on his shoulders. A lesser actor would have tried to dominate scenes; Eisenberg plays it cool, resulting in a character that connects with other characters instead of competing with them. Stewart has broken out as a superstar because of the schlocky first Twilight film. She’s almost ten years younger than Eisenberg in real life, and yet, she absolutely holds her own with him. I thought she was the best part of Twilight, though that’s not saying much coming from me. She’s one of the very best aspects of Adventureland, and that is actually a significant compliment. Hopefully, she won’t find herself type casted as the “emo chick” considering that her character in Adventureland is brooding and downcast, similar to her character in Twilight.

So, here’s what you need to know before seeing Adventureland—it’s a pleasant, even-keeled coming-of-age comedy/drama. It’s not a sweet, perverted laughfest in the likes of Forgetting Sarah Marshall or I Love You Man. Mattola’s dialogue is well-written, and the acting is almost uniformly effective. Despite the fact that Adventureland could have been much funnier, it’s a pleasantly effective film worthy of a viewing by those who understand what this movie is not!