Monday, November 30, 2009

Second Thoughts: Adventureland

Nearly all of the reviews of contemporary reviews I've posted on this blog from its inception leading up to about July were submitted in tandem to Auburn's student newspaper, The Plainsman. The Plainsman set a 500-count word limit (admittedly a flexible one) on my submissions, which is why so many of my reviews for new movies are so short in comparison to my views of older ones. For a while, I tinkered with some of these reviews, editing them surreptitiously to add elements to flesh out the restricted observations I wrote for the Plainsman, but I've decided that, if I have enough I wish to change an opinion of one of my previous posts, or simply find new aspects of a film to discuss that I overlooked, I'll simply collect them into an addendum such as this.

My initial reaction to Adventureland was positive but not exactly effusive, yet it stuck with me as much as the films I considered the best of the year. The more I thought about it, the more I found new touches to enjoy, and when I finally saw it again, I unreservedly adored it. What stuck out that eventually made the good seem great, and why did it take me so long to realize it?

I was idly perusing some of the blogs I follow recently and stumbled across The Film Doctor's review of the film, in which he compares Adventureland and its ability to evoke its time period with Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. An apt comparison, and one I'd supplement with another teen retrospective: Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. None of these films is perfect, yet they are all perfect evocations of a certain period, because they capture that which is most rare, the spiritual unity of youth -- zeitgeist isn't quite the right word -- that manifests itself, appropriately enough, through our primary method of communication: music. Adventureland sports one of the few soundtracks these days that is neither a shallow nod to the big hits designed to sell CDs nor a collection of insufferable hipster semi-obscurity that blends together into one stale, hard-to-swallow acoustic lump; containing tracks by Hüsker Dü, The Cure, The Replacements and numerous, bountifully, gloriously numerous, tracks from Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, Adventureland's soundtrack reflects Mottola's approach to the film: commercially indifferent, unabashed honesty.

Honesty is central to the appeal of these films. Crowe's stranger-than-fiction life story, Linklater's more laid-back, quasi-anthropological examination, and this occasionally downbeat reminiscence all tackle the same ultimate subject with contrasting moods, yet none lies to us. Crowe's film is tinged with his low-key, fleshed-out Spielbergian sentimentality (though I would argue that, if Rolling Stone paid you at 15 to follow the Allman Brothers on tour, you'd be a bit nostalgic too), a movie in which a busload of people can suddenly burst into a sing-along of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" without the barest trace of irony. Mottola's is flecked with a reserved embrace of its period, one that is not so quick to spotlight the fonder memories that it forgets and forgives the bad times.

How, then, are they all flip sides of the same coin, and can three objects fulfill a metaphor of something with two sides? Well, maybe Linklater is the thin middle width connecting them; his film, after all, is more emotionally-neutral behind the camera, allowing the actors and situations to create a mood. Adventureland presents us with a post-graduate hero without any doubts concerning his future. An English major seeking to get into grad school to study journalism, James Brennan dreams of writing travelogues that show the real cities that he visits. He speaks of Charles Dickens' writings on prisons and sanitariums with breathless reverence, as if he can't believe he might get the chance to read them again someday, much less write articles in their vein.

Unlike Benjamin Braddock, the post-grad sophisticate of The Graduate, James' life plans are altered not by a sudden crisis of confidence and insecurity but through the financial troubles of his parents. He saved up for half the cost of a summer in Europe, but his parents (played by superb character actors Wendie Malick and Jack Gilpin) can no longer afford to pay their half. Too, they strongly hint that they'll be unable to pay his tuition for Columbia University. So, James looks high and low for a job. Set in 1987, Adventureland hits strikingly close to home today; financial troubles threaten his ability to continue his education, and no one seems to be hiring for him to get a job to pay his own way.

At last, James finds a potential opening at a local theme park. As Mottola rides just in front of James' bicycle, a gargantuan roller coaster looms in the background, a subtle feint as James keeps riding until he moves farther away from that impressive attraction into the heart of Adventureland. This park is dilapidated and childish, a traveling fair that broke down one day and simply rooted where it stopped. James enters the park's office and accepted without a glance at a resumé by owner Bobby (Bill Hader) and his wife Paulette (Kristen Wiig). James requests a job at one of the rides, but Bobby insists that James is "a games guy," and we sense that this is in some way a put-down.

Games proves to be a dull job indeed, with James standing at various booths lackadaisically separating bored children and couples from their money with rigged games, his only important task to prevent anyone from winning a Giant-Ass Panda. He loses his charge at knifepoint, but no one seems to mind, and in the process he meets fellow games jockey Em (Kristen Stewart), whose striking green eyes have a curious vacuity to them that does not suggest dimness but a genuine sense of angst and a lack of inner direction. Em isn't nearly as literate as James, but she's the next best thing: someone with killer taste in music. Yes, James and Em bond over hip, off-mainstream tunes, but Mottola navigates in between the Scylla and Charybdis that is hipster irony and an over-reliance on music without losing a single shipmate. James, a virgin, is attracted to her because he sees her own vulnerability not as a weakness to be exploited but a sign of kinship borne out through their mutual appreciation of depressive pop (and fellas, if you ever run into a lady with Big Star records, just get down one on knee and propose on the spot).

Yet where James' troubles largely extend to a sudden financial upheaval, Em's life story is considerably more tangled. She lost her mother to cancer only two years ago, only for her father to remarry the woman he was having an affair with, an image-obsessed socialite named Francy who lost her hair due to the stress of her first divorce and its impact upon her circle of gossipers ("My mom loses her hair in chemo, and he starts fucking a bald woman," Em says in a bizarrely matter-of-fact manner, so unable to process this that she treats this news as if a kooky story). Her shock-induced anomie led her into the arms of Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park's maintenance man who inspires awe in the collegiate workers despite the fact that he works maintenance for a crap theme park into his '30s and hides from his wife in his mother's basement. Connell shops a story about of him playing on stage with Lou Reed once, though he never quite gets the titles of the songs they played right.

"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," I wrote in my original review. What an asinine misreading of the character. Having finally acquired a copy of this film for my home collection, I watched Adventureland twice in rapid succession and realized something: Mottola reverses the gender roles of Eisenberg and Stewart. James is the fairly stable one, a genuinely nice person less concerned with losing his virginity than losing it to someone he loves. Em, on the other hand, is at a crossroads, unsure of what she wants out of college and burying her grief in passionless sex with a handsome-but-pathetic loser. When confronted with someone who truly, deeply cares about her, his earnest kindness terrifies her.

This aspect of her character only stands out more when compared to the other noteworthy young lady in the film, the much-worshiped Lisa P (Margarita Levieva). The men of Adventureland gawk at her, clad in a torn T-shirt, gaudy and over-sized earrings and everything else that signified why the '80s were absolutely, unequivocally the worst, as if a goddess. Where Em listens to haunting and powerful college rock, Lisa P dances mechanically the park's incessant usage of Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus," and once again Mottola communicates everything through the music. For everyone else in the park, "Rock Me Amadeus," is used in a manner not unlike the military's usage of blaring rock music to force Manuel Noriega's surrender, weeding out those lacking the fortitude to withstand its constant barrage; her vacant swaying is seductive only in this atmosphere of desperation and sidelined dreams. Lisa P becomes the unlikely fallback for Em, as James is so enamored with Em and so sure that he has no chance with Lisa that he attains that perverse sort of anti-confidence that allows him to be himself around a girl who has never witnessed anything other than obsequious falsity from the men in her life, thus captivating her. When she spreads gossip about Em around the park, however, James sees the Lisa P that the audience sees, a cold succubus trapped in her own sense of superiority and the warped dialectic of her hedonistic, Reaganomic, consumerist pop image and her deluded take on Catholic morality. Her ruse discovered, she simply slinks back into her horrid dance as if repairing her trap for the next victim, one who hopefully won't escape her clutches.

As all romantic comedies must, Adventureland comes to the section of the story in which some misunderstanding or revelation threatens the relationship, but those that plague the budding couple here have been skillfully set up over the course of the film, not suddenly dumped upon us with someone entering a room at the wrong time or with one ill-timed outburst, and thus their time apart can tug at the heart strings without smacking of manipulation and the dénouement can be happy without sinking into schmaltz.

Adventureland can be easily (and, for the most part, lazily) connected to two other recent youth movies by the cast and crew members they share, chiefly Superbad (Mottola) and the Twilight films (Stewart). Working with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's script, Mottola's Superbad wasn't exactly dishonest -- its most absurd moment, involving an ancillary trip to a creepy house party, was purportedly toned down from Rogen and Goldberg's memory of a similar occurrence because they felt that it was so weird no one would buy it -- but its maxims of growing up, and the fear of leaving high school* were distinctly separate from its menstrual-blood-and-dick-jokes linear comedy plot. Adventureland, by contrast, organically fuses its low-key comedy and its off-Graduate tale of post-collegiate uncertainty. Superbad of course also brings up the inevitable Cera-Eisenberg debate, and while they're clearly playing much of the same root character (and not just in these two movies), Eisenberg's James is appealing where Cera's Evan could be nasty and spiteful.

Stewart's Twilight connection is notable because here, too, she plays a morose, sexually confused young woman (albeit promiscuous where Bella is chaste) presented with the choice between an awkward but sincere young kindred spirit or an older, creepily dependent aggressor**. Where the two differ, and differ severely, is in Stewart's performance. Her Em is vulnerable and insecure, but she is never the helpless (and hapless) creature that she must portray as Bella Swan. Em can be quite confident at times, publicly shaming a Catholic co-worker who drunkenly made out with the Jewish Joel and subsequently used his religion as a means to nip any lingering feelings on his part in the bud. Her performance here is proof that vulnerability does not equate to an inability to function without a man, and Mottola's suggestion that unhappiness and doubt can be relieved by a mutually loving relationship is romantic and true on both sides of the gender gap where the romance in Twilight is one-sided and disturbing. If Stewart brought half of what she does here to that series, I'd be the first in line for the next sequel.

As I was pressured by the word limit in my initial review, I devoted little space to discussing any of the actors, and I was catastrophically off the mark with the one person I did detail (Stewart). Both Eisenberg and Stewart are just right for the roles, fitting their current image but adding refined detail to them not present in their other work. Their reserved, dry personae lend an air of credence where other films inject a manic character designed to pump out one-liners like AA fire in the Battle of Britain or to generally act like a jackass; Adventureland does have one such character in the crotch-punching Frigo, unsurprisingly the one aspect of the film I thoroughly dislike. They rub up against the more over-the-top characters played by Hader and Wiig, whose Bobby and Paulette are ludicrous entrepreneurs with dangerously indifferent views of the safety of the rides and the corndogs. Yet they are also tempered by a certain lovable quality; they blare that effing Falco song all day, yell at patrons to properly dispose of trash and attempt in vain to generate some enthusiasm in the game presenters, but none of the employees hates them. Bobby does not fire James for losing the G.A.P., and when another angry patron attempts to beat the poor lad, Bobby bursts out of his office wielding a baseball bat like a father defending his child ("You don't know what I'm capable of!" he shrieks to the suddenly terrified thug). Hader and Wiig are both adept at stealing their scene separately, and together they manage to pull off their caricatures without sacrificing the story's believability.

But even the combined might of Hader and Wiig cannot upstage the genius that is Martin Starr. I only mentioned him in passing in my original review and indeed in this one, but in the interim between seeing Adventureland for the first time and now, I watched Freaks & Geeks, so let me now speak as Martin Starr's #1 New Fan. Starr stole absolutely every moment on that show, a series filled with great performances from each of its cast, and here he effortlessly walks the line between the dry, hyperliterate sarcasm and relatability of James and the comic exaggerations of Bobby and Paulette. His Joel is a Russian lit major and sometimes nihilist who smokes a pipe, which he admits is a pretentious affectation but gives him some amount of serenity. His delivery is so deadpan that you don't get the joke until it passes you, taps on your shoulder and punches you out when you turn around. When he gives that Catholic girl a copy of his favorite Gogol book as his way of courtship, he is at once hilarious and heartbreaking in his shy awkwardness.

stumbled at times, sprinting ahead too quickly at the end and occasionally given to dubious directorial choices that threatened to suck the life out of some shots, but of all the recent attempts to create an identifiable depiction of young adult life, none came so close to the mark as this charming, understated '80s throwback. Unlike the majority of autobiographical films, it is neither overly nostalgic nor embittered by the hindsight of age; often downbeat and measured, it nevertheless offers a touching and happy ending without sprinkling saccharin all over the place. If this doesn't claw its way into my top 10 by the end of the year, it will be pounding at the edge like a 900-lb gorilla until I finally acknowledge it to everyone.

*(I used to wonder why so many films made high school the place of security when leaving college for the real world was the bigger culture shock, only to get to college and realize that the friends I'd built up over 12 years were across the country and I had only four to make lasting impressions with any new people.)
(Kind of sounds like Edward Cullen, huh?)

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