Thursday 30 June 2011

Adventureland (2009)


Coming-of-age stories – something we can all relate to, I suppose. Many have already done it and many are in the process as we speak… but when does it actually happen? At what point can you officially say that you are “of age” in that awkward, moderately existential kind of way? Is it defined by a single act? Does it happen when you have reached a certain age? Or is it something a bit more profound than that? In a manner of addressing such questions, Greg Mottola delves into his time as a young adult working at an amusement park to bring us the nostalgic period comedy Adventureland.

It’s 1987 and James (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated high school and is all set to make a trek around Europe during the summer before college starts. However, his parents have hit rough times, so he has to get a job to pay for school himself. He ends up taking a summer job at the rundown local amusement park, where he meets all kinds of new people, including Em (Kristen Stewart).

Though he had been working as a director for a while, mostly in the world of television, his career was given a major boost in 2007 from the comedy hit Superbad. More associated with the rise and rise of Judd Apatow, Mottola still managed to capture a nice retro feel to the picture, drawing from it the mild haze of a 70s high school comedy that had become kitsch, not to mention a genuine sense of minor epiphany. With a bona fide hit to his name, Mottola was given the chance to make his follow up, another coming-of-age tale based partly on his experiences of working in an old amusement park, which he wrote himself.

Mottola’s hand over Adventureland is firm, but casts itself with subtlety. Given its 80s period setting, the expectation is to over-saturate the film with gimmicky nods to the time, a la The Wedding Singer. It works great there, but Mottola takes this story more seriously. Considering that he probably knew the people that are the basis for these characters, he doesn’t want to cheapen them with easily identifiable stereotypes or comedic broad strokes. The temporal references are not shoved in your face, which gives the whole the feeling not just of a time remembered fondly, but of a time remembered honestly. The only real exception would be the character of Frigo, but he is the one trapped in the times, refusing to grow out of his juvenile ways. And yes, there are ventures into some horrible Day-Glo discos of the time, but that’s what they had back then. Some memories are true.

Jesse Eisenberg is one of those actors that, in everything I’ve seen him in, has never let me down. Here, he is as solid in this as he always is. His particular brand of understated acting suits the material well, all gawky intellectual charm. He’s rarely one for big movements, preferring to convey everything in his eyes. Watching how his eyes flit from left to right, or how he looks awkwardly around, or even when he just stops and stares. He almost doesn’t need to do anything else, but he still backs it up with a great line of head tilts and arched eyebrows and smirks and a sporadic… way of speak-uh, of speaking. He gets the initial frustration of being there, but also the resigned malaise of knowing he’s stuck there, and then he perks up as things get more interesting. The boy’s got some skills.

I had almost forgotten how good an actress Kristen Stewart actually is before I saw this movie for the first time. She’s way more known for her work in the Twilight movies, and so it’s easy to forget that she’s done other stuff. Adventureland kind of reminds you of what she can actually do, given the chance and some decent material. It’s perhaps also easy to dismiss her performance here as too like her performance in Twilight. It’s true that there are some similarities, but they’re slight ones. Both Em and Bella are needy and torn, but Em is so much more than that. Bella is flaky, whiny and, frankly, a pain in the ass; Em has more depth, so you can actually see the conflict sitting under her skin. Em is at a loss in herself, but still needs comfort and contact, so she makes bad decisions, and she hates herself for that, which makes her feel worse. She also got character and strength, standing up to stranger and friend alike for things she disagrees with. Bella is a poorly drawn caricature; Em is an actual person, damaged but real.

Ryan Reynolds initially feels like an odd casting choice, given the fairly small role he’s in, but therein lies the point. Reynolds is a much bigger star than this, so he’s expected to be doing better, but that’s exactly what is at the heart of Connell. With his good looks and easy cool, he probably thought he’d be bigger in life, making a killing with his band. As it is, things didn’t work out for him, and now he’s the park’s (apparently only) maintenance guy, a walking symbol for dreams unfulfilled. However, he’s deeper than that, too. He’s come to terms with this, instead using this aura of cool to score with the prettier girls who work in the park, despite being married. He’s a dick who takes advantage, but strangely you don’t entirely hate him, either.

There’s great support from the rest of the cast, too. Martin Starr’s Joel is the very embodiment of personal social awareness. He knows his smoking a pipe is disgusting, he knows his education is of little real world value (Russian literature and Slavic languages), and he knows a moderately trained monkey could do his job, but he accepts his lot with a deadpan fatalism that just makes him better to watch. You kind of feel that someone like him should be annoying, but he’s really quite likable. Everyone should have a friend like Joel. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig also do a great turn as the couple that run the park, although Hader gets the much showier role.

There’s also a rather wistful element to Adventureland, which helps to maintain that nostalgia factor, and it’s not entirely because they use the bittersweet pop mainstay of 80s soul-searching montages, Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. We enter into things with the knowledge that this job is temporary, a summer thing, something to endure before James heads off to college and begins his life for real. As time goes on and friendships are made and broken, feelings are exposed and hurt, when you come to the end of the summer, it feels like something more significant has ended with it. It’s the same kind of feeling many had when they left high school, that it may be the last time you see any of these people again and the world seems a little bit bigger. Clearly, James and his ilk didn’t really have that feeling when they left school, too busy planning the next step in their lives to notice their here and now. It’s only when the plan stalls and they’re forced to stand still and watch things go by that they notice what life really looks like.

Perhaps that’s what Adventureland is saying it means to “come of age.” It’s not defined by an act, like the first time you have sex, and it’s not defined by an event, like school graduation. It’s defined by the moment you realise that the world is much bigger than you and your plans. All you can hope for is to make the most of what you get, and if you can find someone or something that helps make the passing of time better, then it’s down to you to make the leap and hold onto it. When John Lennon sang, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” he pinpointed where that slight internal ache, that pulling, comes from - knowing that you’ve lost something you can’t get back because you were too busy looking elsewhere. It’s not that you won’t ever be happy, not at all, but it’s something that never quite goes away, and all you can do is think back to the time when you had such potential and wonder ‘what if?’

Adventureland is a low-key, but still rather sweet and charming film. Less concerned with the bigger, more outlandish laughs of Superbad, it spends more time concentrating on the drama between characters and tentative connections they make over a period of time they know is fleeting. It’s still got some laughs to it, but they are pretty subtle and far between. Really more drama than comedy, but worth it for a rather affecting and nostalgic story of growing up.

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