Last Friday, Corinne and I went to see what we anticipated would be Superbad In an Amusement Park, and I was very pleasantly surprised to instead find a thoughtful, romantic, relevant film that is undoubtedly my favorite of 2009 (and probably of 2008, as well).
Written and directed by Greg Mottola — who’s most recent claim to fame was, of course, 2007’s Superbad — Adventureland is about as far from Superbad as it could be, while remaining in the same genre and attracting the same audience. Superbad, while hilarious and undeniably fun, moved quickly and left little room for any character development, and by the end of the film, I felt little more of a connection with the central characters than I did within the first ten minutes of the film. Furthermore, I had problems relating to the characters who (at least four or five years ago) should have been somewhat relatable (maybe this is because I wasn’t much of party person, I don’t know), which left the movie as being hilarious, but ultimately vacuous. Of course, the latter issue is not so much the fault of the movie; like any piece of art, a film will have more significance to some people than others (and in this case, for me, it had less).
That in mind, Adventureland certainly struck a chord that few movies in recent years have. In an interview, Greg Mottola described his motivations for the film as “melding Dazed and Confused-type nostalgia movies about the 80s with a very intimate story of first love.” Judging by the reactions of the audience — after the movie was over, an older gentleman sitting next to Corinne smiled and said to no one in particular, “Very good.” — most of the older people in the audience (i.e. not the kids in the front rows who were there for the (notably absent) penis jokes and gross-out scenes) seemed to appreciate the nostalgia of both the time period and young love.
In a nutshell, Adventureland tells the story of a recent college graduate whose life is changed by a summer working at a shitty local amusement park after his plans for the future are halted financially by his father being “demoted” from his old job. This much you can get from the atrociously misleading trailer which, after its (seeming) purpose of attracting the aforementioned “younger” demographic during the film’s first few weeks in theaters has ended, will hopefully be replaced by a better one that is more accurate to the true nature of the film; anything less would be robbing the film of a deserved larger audience.
After the characters have all been introduced, the mood of the film changes in a scene with the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” which does an excellent job of setting the atmosphere for the remainder of the film; like the song (and unlike Superbad, as mentioned above), it moves at a mellow pace, and is simultaneously sweet and stark. James, the lead character (played by Jesse Eisenberg), has just returned home after graduating from college. Faced with a need to get a summer job after James’ father loses his, he soon realizes that a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and Renaissance studies doesn’t make him qualified for any “real world” position. Later in the film, Joel (played by a hilariously droll Martin Starr, a la Bill from Freaks and Geeks), when asked what career track a degree in Russian literature and Slavic languages leads to, he replies, “Cabbie. Hot Dog Vendor. Marijuana delivery guy.” Sadly, this is not far from the truth; Corinne’s father (who is himself a professor of philosophy), likes to say that a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts gets you the title of “manager” in a Wal-Mart (or, alternatively, as Joel also says in the film, “doing the work of pathetic, lazy morons”). As unfortunate as this might be, it is clear why: the most relevant jobs in these departments are often in teaching, and since these areas of research don’t bring in big money (from alums, for instance, as engineering or business might), good positions are scarce. (I’ve recently learned of a program at this university that seeks to merge engineering research (specifically in computer science) with that of the humanities, which I think is a fantastic idea, and will hopefully bring more money and interest to such departments that are in need of both.)
Digressing, James is forced to take a position at a local run-down amusement park, after he finds that being more knowledgeable than 70% of the country’s population (if a college degree means anything) can’t even get him a job waiting tables or driving a cement mixer. There, he meets park owners Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig — both hilarious, as usual, and not overused) who immediately peg him as a “games guy,” which in the park seems to be a metaphor for the disaffected young intellectuals working the game stands (Joel and Em, played by a fantastic Kristen Stewart).
Unlike most movies in the genre — and, arguably, most movies in general — the main characters are all presented in a way that you can empathize (or sympathize) with each of them. (Consider The Simpsons and Family Guy — while both shows are (debatably) funny, you generally care for all of the Simpson family members, while the same is not true for the Griffins (in fact, the opposite might be true)). I have read the original script for the film, and this was not necessarily the case there; several of the characters play more like those from Superbad, while in the film, they come off more like those of (the excellent) Freaks and Geeks. In the script, Connell (the cool-guy-rocker-turned-maintenance-man played by Ryan Reynolds) comes off as a sleazy, womanizing bastard, who clearly uses Em and other young, impressionable women to satiate desires not fulfilled by his crappy marriage. In the film, however, Reynolds plays Connell as more of a tragic character; while many of the youths working at the park are destined for better things, he is stuck there for life, and appearing cool to vulnerable girls (and then sleeping with them) is the only thing he has left that keeps him from facing how shitty his life is. In particular, the unspoken understanding between James and Connell towards the end of the film, where it is finally revealed that Connell never jammed with Lou Reed (his main selling point with the park’s youth), is perfectly executed.
That said, this was the first time I have seen Jesse Eisenberg (James); he plays his character solidly, and is believable as a witty, albeit slightly pretentious, innocent. Similarly, this is the only thing I’ve seen Kristen Stewart in (aside from 2002’s Panic Room, during which I remember thinking that “the little girl” did a really good job). While I haven’t seen Twilight (and don’t plan on seeing it any time in the near future), she gives the standout performance in this film. This might be due to the fact that her character’s personality is similar to her own (which seems to be at least partially the case, from some interviews with her that I’ve watched online), but she regardless nails the character, and was genuinely fun to watch — the last actor that had that affect on me was Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl and Fracture; I could watch those movies just to see his acting in them. There is a particular scene in the film, in which James and Em are watching Joel play an arcade game at the park; Em’s is subtly fidgeting and looking around, and her conversational contribution sounds distant, making it seem as if she has something/someone else on her mind (which, we find, she does). I love moments like this in films, because it’s the way people behave in real life — sure, you could simply deliver your lines, but actions often speak louder than words; in life, people generally do small things like this for reasons, and acting gives the opportunity to choreograph such actions to bring more life to films. Furthermore, this scene was not in the script, which makes me wonder where or from whom this inspiration came.
While on the topic of what people do in real life, Adventureland contains two elements that I love seeing in films. First, there is a dichotomy present in almost all of the leading characters. James is innocent, intelligent, and likable, yet at the same time can be pretentious and overly naive. On the other hand, Joel is also intelligent, but gives in to (his perceived ultimate fate of) being a loser. Em is capable of love and making good relationships, but is filled with self-loathing that causes her to makes bad, unhealthy decisions. And (as previously mentioned), Connell is a tragic douchebag. This is all consistent with my experiences in life — despite what Disney might want children to think, there are almost always no clean-cut notions of good and evil or right and wrong in people. We all make good choices and bad choices, do things that we will be ashamed of later. That’s life, and it’s refreshing when art reflects it. Second, the film enforces the notion that “everything is going to be alright.” At the end of the movie, we aren’t sure whether James will go to graduate school at Columbia (his initial goal at the beginning of the movie), or take a job as a journalist (as he does in the script), but it doesn’t really matter. A lot of films would be sure to establish such an ending, if for no other reason then to please the audience. Well, sometimes shit happens, and things don’t turn out the way you might have expected them to. (This was an one of the things that I respected about Knocked Up — the plot wasn’t about remedying a crappy situation, it was about dealing with it.) But usually everything turns out alright.
Finally, I’ve failed to mention one of the most pervasively excellent parts of the film — the soundtrack; throughout, we are delivered great, mood-setting tracks by the likes of Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, Big Star, The Cure, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and The Replacements (among others). One of the biggest discrepancies between the script and the final result is that, in the film, the element that ties everything together is Lou Reed — Connell’s shtick revolves around him, and “Satellite of Love” almost becomes the anthem for the film (both within in the plot and the soundtrack) — whereas in the script, the focus is instead on Neil Young. In my mind, these two people personify entirely distinct moods, and I think the film would have been very different if this change had not been made. At the same time, it’s an interesting change to make, and I would be very curious to find out what the impetus for it was. Similarly, the script called for Brian Eno’s beautiful “Taking Tiger Mountain” to play during the scene after James and Em get out of the swimming pool; instead, this was replaced in the film by Big Star’s “I’m in Love With a Girl,” which ended up being perfect for that scene.