Friday, April 3, 2009
Is there anything in this world duller than a summer job? At least the tedium of full-time employment brings with it the ever-present fear of termination, but every snot-nosed teen and twenty-something knows that, barring any major slip-ups, he’s stuck stocking shelves or flipping burgers at a time we’re all used to hanging out and watching movies. That boredom informs Superbad director Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical tale of his summer job, and the result is a surprisingly tender and subtly hilarious film.
We meet James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, looking like a more confident version of Michael Cera’s shy virgin), Mottola’s stand-in, freshly graduated from college and looking to attend Columbia University’s post-graduate school (after a summer tour through Europe, of course). But when his father loses his job, James must find himself a summer job to pay his way at Columbia. After hunting all over town for anything, James finally settles for Adventureland, a dingy amusement park run by a pair of mom-and-pop shysters (played by professional show-stealers Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) who rig all the games and sell rotten corndogs to maximize their minimal profits.
James sits dead-eyed behind the various game booths, doing his best to make sure no-one wins the grand prize, the aptly titled Giant Ass Panda. He quickly befriends fellow games attendee Joel (Martin Starr), a pipe-smoking existentialist who could probably turn this job into a great novel if it didn’t corrode him so much, and contends with childhood friend Frigo, who punches poor James in a sensitive area every chance he gets.
But something must break the boredom, and of course nothing alleviates ennui like a woman. While the rest of the young employees lust after the gorgeous Lisa P., James falls for Em (Kristen Stewart), a timid girl who seems as virginal as James even though she’s more “experienced” (thankfully the virgin aspect isn’t overplayed as it is in every other geek comedy). Stewart plays a variation of what The Onion A.V Club terms the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl:” that is, a female character who serves to bring the male protagonist to some sort of epiphany and/or stable relationship at the expense of any characteristics of her own. Of course, as the star of Twilight, Stewart is no stranger to portraying a blank slate for others to project their desires upon, but at least she gets to do something here. Oh, and Ryan Reynolds shows up as a married maintenance man who is constantly at the park because, oh, you’ll probably figure it out before they tell you.
It’s all a recipe for cliché, yet the level of acting from everyone right down to the bit players and a script that offers moments of serious truths without forcing them lift the film into the levels of the better youth movies of recent years, the missing link between Superbad and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Oh it boasts one hell of a soundtrack: set in the late 80s, Adventureland is stuffed to the gills with great cuts from college rock staples like Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, The Cure, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and a deliberately and hilariously overused “Rock Me Amadeus.” The great selection serves as proof positive that a well-chosen set of tunes can make a good movie even better and helped me wash the taste of Watchmen’s rank mishmash of ill-fitting tunes out of my mouth..
Greg Mottola couldn’t get this movie off the ground until he put Superbad on his resumé, yet its delayed production actually worked in its favor. Consider James’ situation then think about the current economy: it’s not exactly hard to draw parallels. So, timing-wise, think of Adventureland as a sort of reverse Confessions of a Shopaholic. But regardless of when it came out, Adventureland is a smart, sweet, very funny comedy that’s worth more than one viewing.