Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sign O' The Times

by James Hansen

Like an overcast day in Pittsburgh spent shooting fireworks into a hazy, gray sky transitioning into buoyant rays of light shimmering off every window pane on the same rainy night in New York City, Adventureland cautiously lingers from moment to moment waiting for some kind of downpour as it deeply nestles into an aching malaise of ever-fleeting, completely fulfilling experience.

Director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad) layers Adventureland with an astonishing degree of restraint, which purposefully holds back fast and furious comedy instead preferring an intensely nuanced character-based approach that underlies comedic payoff while it immediately accesses acute emotional resonance. Though this challenging approach makes Adventureland’s small [character driven] missteps a bit more pungent, Adventureland remains a complete success on every track and stands as the most engaged, dedicated, and truly moving comedy since BBC’s The Office.

Adventureland, like most other films about the post-pubescent boy-man, is a story about “THE loss of innocence” over that final summer before boy-man’s life spins into a new direction. In this case, the boy-man is James (Jesse Eisenberg) who, subsequently, is already more intellectual man than boy. Accepted into a Columbia graduate program for writing and constantly spouting stories about the work of Charles Dickens, James is set for success until financial troubles force him to abandon his longtime friend on a trip to Europe and stay in Pittsburgh to work at the local park Adventureland. Far from being the summer of his dreams, James’s ride becomes stalled. Importantly, James has never had an intention of “losing” his virginity, as the psychological complications that typically go with such a decision are not beyond his grasp, as they often are in classic teen comedies.

While some critics have misplaced James’ desire to lose his virginity (some have mistakenly claimed it the sole reason for his actions throughout the movie) the relationship he develops with Em (a fantastic Kristen Stewart) is far from a move to nail a chick and claim his manhood; rather, Adventureland focuses on the unexpected and very real bond between the two – oddly enough, sex becomes secondary. While virginity is a topic of conversation, it isn’t like James wanders around angry that they aren’t having sex or tossing around stories about sexual exploits. If anything, James’s extreme ideological shift to object-of-lust Lisa P is misconstrued and an extremely artificial plot point instead of naturally growing out of the deeply constructed characters.

Similarly, Adventureland makes great use of its secondary characters to heighten the emotional and comedic payoff of the two leads. Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park maintenance man who curiously spins the story of his glory day jamming with Lou Reed, begins as a sort-of mentor for James despite his conflicted interest with Em – something James and the rest of the park employees fail to realize. Even when things take a bad turn, Mike and James make clear the type of men they already are in an extraordinary moment where they bridge a gap together while they simultaneously burn the bridge down. Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig) run the schticky park and, despite being purposefully one-note, they add a certain charm to the place even as the characters begin to abandon it. Perhaps the most important secondary characters, however, is Joel (Martin Starr), James’ friend who sees right through him even when his own vision becomes broken. Joel realizes the kind of person he really is, and he challenges James to do the same.

While Adventureland stands out for its emotional complexity, future viewings will undoubtedly uncover a multitude of sly comedy, which is subtly built into each character. It is vastly different both stylistically and comedically from any other recent comedy, resulting in its dismal box office on opening weekend, but twice as effective for the same reason. Mottola, along with the superb performances from the cast, especially Eisenberg and Stewart, take this familiar premise to a place it has never been before. By embedding it in time with a wide ranging, supremely effective soundtrack, Adventureland is timely, timeful, and uniquely deliberate as to be constructed in a specific period yet perfectly translatable to the next. Adventureland has characters that will continue to grow in the future, and, just like its titular park, it has the ability to stick around no matter the time – next week, next summer, next generation.


Sam Juliano said...

Very fine review here James. i saw this last weekend with my kids, and while the younger ones were wincing as some of the more affectionate moments, I was engaged in a film that dealt most persuasively with a number of coming-of-age issues. I didn't quite see this as a comedy in the way you did (and maybe you are right that down the road it will be seen as such) but it was a film above all of substantial emotional resonance. I was surprised, as I truly loathed that juvenile and lame SUPERBAD. But it's a happy surprise.

James Hansen said...

Thanks Sam. Glad to hear you enjoyed it too. I agree about the emotional resonance being the main draw. I tried to make that the focus of the bulk of my review, but I do think it is very funny and will only get funnier with multiple viewings. On the same note, chalk this down as the first film of 2009 that made me cry... and that doesn't happen too often. Really surprising impact. It just really nailed me at certain moments. Happy surprise indeed.

Anonymous said...

Probably one of my favorite movies I've seen this year. INCREDIBLE.

Chuck W said...

All right, that does it! I'm going to see this movie as soon as possible. Happy now? :)

James Hansen said...

I can't wait until you hate it, Chuck. That'll be fun.

Tony- Glad you enjoyed it as well. I actually saw it again tonight (first thing I've seen in theaters twice since INLAND EMPIRE...not that I'm putting it quite on that level maybe...) and liked it even more. Its realz good.

Anonymous said...

Brandon, where you at homie? Give Chuck crap for not having seen it yet! :)

Chuck W said...

Ha, ha. One of these days, I'm gonna have to post a list of the films I'm most embarrassed to have never seen. (It would be a pretty big list.)

Brandon Colvin said...

This film is awesome.

Fuck you, Chuck.

That good enough, Tony? Hahaha.

I'm gonna see it at least one more time in theaters too. I can't imagine that it won't end up in my top 5 of the year.

Sam Juliano said...

LOL on that last comment to Chuck!

I never in my wildest dreams thought this would have any kind of a chance by I was so wrong.

PIPER said...

So wait,

We can tell Chuck to fuck off?

Is that legal?

Okay then. Fuck off Chuck.

I liked this film very much. It truly explores the ugly side of relationships. All the insecurities are on the surface to explore.

Restraint is a great word to describe Mottola's direction. They did this movie a disservice by pushing Superbad as much as they have.

Nice review James.

PIPER said...


So I've noticed there are no more comments after mine.

Chuck must be pissed.

But Chuck, you have to understand that James put me up to it.

Here's how it went.

James: Piper, tell Chuck to fuck off in the comment's section.

Piper: I won't do it. No way.

James: Here's five dollars.

Piper: Absolutely not.

James: Here's five dollars and a Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie.

Piper: Okay, I'll do it.

So you see, I'm weak. But James was behind it the entire time. He pulls the strings.

James Hansen said...

Thanks for blowing my cover, Piper! Now Chuck's really going to get angry! (He's actually in the process of moving which explains his absence lately...he'll be back with a vengeance though...assuming I don't cut his strings...)


Seriously though, thanks for the comments. We've been lagging in comments lately...always glad to see more to get feedback/a convo going.