Monday, August 24, 2009

An Era of Productivity... what I appear to be in. Three posts in roughly a week? Holy shit! Anyway, I watched a movie. Here's what I think.

Adventureland (2009)

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Margarita Levieva, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader, Kristin Wiig
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Certain things are very difficult to capture on film, and one of those things is the fleeting feeling that your life is changing and entering into a new era. It's a feeling just about anyone with any emotional intuitiveness has felt wholly. It possesses an exciting but terrifying presence that just overwhelms you at once and won't let go until it just slowly fades away into the comfort and sometimes complacence that time brings. Fortunately, Adventureland just nails that feeling, a fact that alone makes it worth spending your time on.

The film opens in 1987 with recent college graduate James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) sharing his excitement with a close friend about their upcoming summer trip to Europe, which is immediately to be followed by beginning graduate school at Columbia. Everything seems directly lined up for James' life to take off in the path he's made for himself. Soon, though, things begin to go vastly awry. First, James' parents let him know over lunch that things have been rough for them financially of late, and that James isn't going to receive his graduation gift as planned. What was the graduation gift in question? His trip to Europe. Completely devastated about having to spend his last summer before grad school at home in Pittsburgh, James later gets the news that the lack of money has gotten worse, and even a semester at Columbia isn't going to be possible. Without any other way of getting where he wants to be, James decides to take a meaningless summer job at Adventureland, a local summer carnival.

At the carnival, James makes several friends. First there's Joel (Martin Starr), who he works directly with in the games department, Em (Kristen Stewart), another games girl he begins to fall for, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a slightly older maintenance man whose life is marred by lies and infidelity, and Lisa P (Margarita Leviera), the girl everyone has a crush on. All of these characters are created with love and drawn out carefully. No matter what we think of their actions, there's not one of them we don't at least feel something for.

The key here is that director and writer Mottola makes sure no one is a vacuous, generalized character. A less intelligent and talented writer would have taken the easy way out. James could have easily been an awkward literature nerd who is too shy to do anything or meet anyone and then overcomes this with flying colors by movie's end. But Mottola realizes this isn't realistic, and it's not interesting. James is outlined as a sometimes awkward literature nerd, but he has abundant feelings and opinions, he isn't terribly afraid of girls, he drinks and smokes pot from time to time, and he even gets in a fight when it's completely necessary. He is far from a cardboard cutout. The same can be said for Kristen Stewart's Em, a girl who is clearly intelligent and attractive, but isn't even close to believing in herself. While she has plenty of angst, Em isn't just an angry punk kid with a gruff exterior that she eventually sheds. She's a very complicated person who is deeply afraid to let herself feel as happy around James as she does because she doesn't feel like she deserves it.

Mottola also freely allows his characters to make realistic mistakes that reinforce the fact that Adventureland is head and shoulders above its peers in the genre. We find out quickly that Em has been having a periodic sexual relationship with Mike Connell. Most movies would make this into a dirty spectacle of moral outrage. Adventureland certainly does not. Em is doing this because she hates herself and Connell, as messed up as it is, makes her feel cared about. It's implied that Connell is doing roughly the same thing, looking for the companionship an empty marriage isn't giving him, but only semi-realizing that he is taking of advantage of someone in the process. Even James, who is amazingly nice and we constantly root for, goes on a date with Lisa P while his love for Em is still blooming. None of this would be effective if the movie's characters weren't so three dimensional.

Another thing Adventureland succeeds wildly in doing is feeling like a certain time and place. Set mostly at the carnival itself, the movie uses a 1980s indie rock soundtrack and awful '80s clothing trends to help heighten the sense of where this is. None of this is done carelessly or in an over-the-top manner. In fact, the music and backdrops used help to accentuate the life-changing feelings most of these characters are having, just as we all associate certain songs and places with certain periods in our life. You just get the sense that this is the summer all of these characters are going to remember when they reflect back on their lives.

Despite no major setbacks, there are a couple of things that just don't fit well within the movie's atmosphere. On hand to play a couple who runs Adventureland, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig often appear in the movie solely for punchlines, and most of the time it feels forced and out of place, like it would have been more at home in Mottola's last outing (Superbad). Both featured sets of parents in the movie are also a bit underwhelming. James's mom and dad don't seem the least bit remorseful about his dreams going up in flames, and Em's dad and stepmom both appear as awful selfish people who don't know she exists until she acts out ferociously. Despite this, Adventureland is a fantastically crafted coming-of-age story that has nothing to do with high school, jocks, nerds, or anything like that. It lands much closer to real life, and as a result hits much closer to home. As far as I'm concerned, that's a noteworthy achievement.

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