[This week sees Greg Mottola’s Adventureland released in the UK, and while the release schedule in the US remains somewhat stale since the beginning of my August hiatus, Adventureland is worth seeing. For our users outside of the US, this Adventureland review is for you. American readers can tune in later to check out their review for the week as I have my first Tyler Perry experience.]
Adventureland is one of those movies you should take a date to if you are between the ages of 20 and 40, because I’m fairly sure you will end up having a good time with said date, and I’m looking out for you, buddy.
Why bound the suggestion to that particular age group? Are you not going to like it if you’re a Twilight fan and just want to see the next Kristin Stewart movie? It has a lot to do about what growing up means and the reality of the entire experience, a reality that I’m convinced Adventureland portrays in a realistic manner and a reality that specifically speaks in a very real way to people that grew up in the 80s and early 90s.
The film is set in Pittsburgh, PA in 1987, and though I wasn’t old enough to be attending amusement parks like Adventureland in that time period, I did hang out at malls in my early 90s teenage years. Despite the title Adventureland, as a drama, could have been set in a mall. The love story of the film and the coming of age plotline don’t require Adventureland the park to work, but knowing that writer/director Greg Mottola used to be employed at a theme park goes a long way to explaining why Adventureland is Adventureland and not titled something like “Bag Full Of Joints” (I’ll explain that later). The comedy beats of the movie don’t really depend on the film being set in a theme park either, and me being the cynic I am, I’m going to guess this has something to do with the reality of shooting a film on an independent budget in a theme park where the insurance allowing crews and stars to get on the rickety rides was ultimately too expensive.
But don’t let the setting and title being secondary get you down, because Adventureland isn’t and shouldn’t be about Adventureland. Adventureland is about growing up and finding that first love that means something for reasons you can’t really define, it’s a film that spends so much time making its characters feel real that it abandons the too-cool-for-school attitude that (possibly by a fluke) elevated Juno to a mainstream hit. Next weekend, when you’re picking what you’re going to see in theaters, Fast & Furious is going to be your candy bar: you’ll get a sugar rush and feel good until it drops you hard. Adventureland isn’t a buffet of lobster and caviar, but it is a solid full meal of a film.
Because Mottola is off of his hit SuperBad, a lot of the trailers for this film are trying to slant to that same audience, especially with the Red Band trailer which makes much to do of a character named Frigo and his penchant for punching people in the nuts. If you check out the poster, you’ll notice a little addition of tracks featured in the film, because the movie has a killer soundtrack. However, both of these are marketing gimmicks. I think there’s a high chance that if you like what I’m telling you and not the film’s advertising that you will like the film Mottla wants to present to you. I recommend you see it because you need to give yourself a chance to see this flick without expecting Superbad. It’s not going to try and be that for you, which would suck if it didn’t deliver an experience of its own.
That’s about as far as I can go SPOILER FREE. But I do have the details to back up my boasts. Under the cut, that is…
When I was being a mall rat in the early 90s, my parents refused to latch on to the pager fad that was in full swing. I was actually present for conversations where some other parent would tell mine how amazing it was to be able to get in touch with your children at any given time. This later evolved into cell phones and my parents eventually caved, but only after I turned 16, since in the suburbia where I lived had no trouble within biking distance.
My high-school-to-college summer was spent smoking pot, hanging around at the mall and drinking way more than I ever will again. It was spent pining after those relationships I had in high school, always goading myself to actually say something to those hot girls I had been stalkerishly (I might have just invented that adverb) obsessed with. I had a list (Hi, Tamra Sheldon) but ended up saying nothing to the people on that list because I had no way to engage them. Even in the throes of massive keg parties just off the CU Boulder campus, I had no opening line, no way to start new relationships and a crippling obsession that I hadn’t done everything (everyone?) I was supposed to in my “youth.”
And it’s because I didn’t have a bag of joints.
I’m fairly sure Adventureland is about the magical power of a bag of joints, and let me explain how by telling the story (filled with review-a-riffic asides) by tracking that bag of joints.
We meet James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, who kind of did this same part in The Squid And The Whale, but that shouldn’t be held against either film) at a party where he’s being me and bemoaning the loss of one of those high-school sweethearts that never was going to mean anything. We learn James is a virgin (marked by an invisible scarlet V), but a witty one. James is planning a European summer vacation before heading to Columbia Grad School where he plans to eventually become a travel essayist.
Cut to a mid-afternoon dream-crushing session where Dad (Jack Gilpin) is letting Mom (Wendie Malick) do most of the talking. Dad’s been giving a lesser job and is effectively going to kill his son’s future by canceling the European trip outright and making his boy work for the money needed to attend Columbia. Dad drinks while Mom slams the hammer down: Jesse’s gotta get a job.
Cut to James telling his traveling buddy that he won’t be able to go to Europe, but will meet him in New York to start Columbia together. Semi-douche friend feigns sorrow, but instead hands James a bag of joints to get him through the summer.
REVIEW-A-RIFFIC ASIDE: Jack Gilpin as the Dad does a fantastic job of creating a three-dimensional Dad character. He secretly drinks, he feels bad that he can’t provide everything for his son, but he happened to married a woman who is going to take control and make the best of it.
James can’t get hired anywhere, so he bops over to Adventureland, the kind of place where they even hire the local mentally-challenged twentysomething to police the parking lot. There isn’t an interview, but rather Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig (as the husband-and-wife owners slash comic relief) just hand him a shirt and botch any ceremonial asides Hader might have in mind.
James gets placed on Games, though he’d rather be on Rides, and within the first week gets into a little trouble for giving away a Big Ass Panda (which he was told specifically not to do). Swooping in to save him is Em (Kristen Stewart) who James is taken with. She has a party coming up that she invites the new guy to, and at the party James and Em get to sneak away and have their moment when…
THEY SMOKE A JOINT
Unless you were a bully or football star in high school (in which case I say to you now: What seems to be the problem, officer?), chances are you see yourself as an outcast. Don’t feel bad, 80% of the people you went to high school with feel like the outcast. That’s what high school is. So, even though you might be making the best of it by using the “I was a geek in high school” line to pick up hipster-geek chicks, try to remember what it really felt like to be socially awkward.
It’s my opinion that if James didn’t whip out the pot as a conversation-starter that Em and him would have never gotten together. Adventureland is a film populated with characters who wear their character flaws on their sleeve. Side characters get one-scene reveals to show us their pathos, and the Hader/Wiig “flaw” is that they are just simple people running a park (pretty basic), but the main characters of James, Em and Connor (Ryan Reynolds) are all realistically fleshed out, giving each character an emotional center for their flaw, which is really all you can ask for from those characters. This isn’t Mission Impossible 3, we didn’t give Tom Cruise a wife as something to drive set pieces, this story is based about the revelation of people’s flaws.
And if you think about it, isn’t that what growing up is? Discovering that the people around you: the hot girl, the stud, your parents are all deeply flawed humans who are just as clueless as to where life is taking them as you are?
It turns out Em is damaged. As she puts it very simply herself later in the film: her mother started dying of cancer and her dad remarried a woman who went bald from the stress of her first divorce. Bald woman he loved exchanged for just a bald woman who is a bitch (Mary Birdsong). Em’s damaged interior manifests itself in a clandestine affair with Ryan Reynolds, an older married man who does repairs on the Adventureland rides and games.
Although I’d love to talk more about the delightful (but flawed) side characters played by Freaks and Geeks alum Martin Starr and Paige Howard (yes, Ron Howard’s younger daughter), I’ll leave some of the film unspoiled and just say that these characters, like Em, start hanging out with James WHEN THEY SMOKE A JOINT.
We learn about Connor and Em’s affair while James is left in the dark. Ryan Reynolds might turn in the best performance of this film, adding credence to my theory that the man knows how to pick a project. Even in crap like Just Friends, Reynolds knows how to play any character as likable, and when someone makes a horrible movie watchable for just a few seconds (Waiting), we should notice the actor if not the film.
The moment I was convinced I was watching Reynolds do good work is when James comes to Connor for advice on Em and Connor – who in a lesser film would have created some sort of comic misunderstanding for the purpose of plot – actually tells the dude how it is. Or, more specifically, Connor isn’t lying. We also learn that Connor’s life sucks, his wife forced him into a possibly loveless marriage and he has affairs with young Adventureland girls in his Mom’s basement. We also learn that his Mom is a pain in the ass when Connor has to go to her house to explain to her what her stove pilot light does. How do we learn that? How does James get to hang out with anyone? JAMES AND CONNOR SMOKE A JOINT.
Later, with the introduction of Lisa P, the sought-after hottie who acts like a slut even though she’s a virgin (played by the stunning Margarita Levieva, whose number I failed to retrieve under fear of being uber-unprofessional, and possibly because I forgot a joint) shows up in the park. She’ll provide the expected counter-point to Em for James, because – before he learns of her possible virginity – Lisa P, the Megan Fox of Adventureland, approaches our loner protagonist because she hears he has some pot.
That’s right. THEY SMOKE A JOINT.
Just in case you’re not getting the picture, for as charming as the cloistered geek is when played by Jesse Eisenberg, the device used for him to be let into their lives. The lead in to the film’s romantic breaking point (not going to spoil that) is based around James’s guilt about secretly going on a date with Lisa P leading him to give the rest of his joints to Em who uses them to make pot cookies, which leads to Em confessing feelings (possibly ones she only thinks she has) for James.
In other words, by the time the bag of joints has been depleted, all the characters have been set up for the third act. By the time the characters stop being high, no one has any developing left to do, situations just have to resolve themselves.
And they do, and it’s done with wit and emotional honesty and it fits.
This movie made me remember certain things about growing up. Specifically, how everyone is too damaged and awkward to talk to and/or help one another. I love how I still don’t know exactly when Em falls in love with James, I don’t know when he makes the transition from “the other person who is not part of this fucked up situation I’m in” into “the person I love.” It might not be towards the very end, and that rings so true for me.
Because growing up is confusing and fucked up for all of us, but when you finally get to look back at it from adulthood, you realize that everyone was so afraid of being the weird, confused one that we were all just passing the time trying to get hot chicks (or hot guys) to notice us, and we never had enough joints to open up all the stories.
If you live in the UK, you can find this film in theaters this weekend. If you live in the US, check it out on DVD.