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Film Review: Adventureland

Adventureland (2009; Directed by Greg Mottola)

For James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), the summer of 1987 commences as a series of rolling disappointments. Having completed a Comparative Literature degree at Oberlin College, his long-nurtured plan is to travel Europe before moving to Columbia in New York City for a graduate degree in journalism. But he’s low on money and so, it seems, are his parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) all of a sudden. They can’t fund his trip and maybe not even his further schooling, so he has no choice but to stay at home in Pittsburgh and find a summer job.

That summer job is at a run-down local amusement park, where James minds the midway games (he was hoping for a job on the rides, but it seems he’ll have to work his way up to that). He’s introduced to the various carnival challenges rigged to minimize the number of winners; his boss (Bill Hader) tells him in no uncertain terms that if anyone wins an oversized panda prize on his shift, it will be his last. He’s also introduced to a rogue’s gallery of co-workers that become a circle of friends: his idiot childhood best-friend Frigo (Matt Friend), a self-aware but socially maladroit Russian Lit major (Martin Starr), a semi-legendary Catholic girl tease (Margarita Levieva), the cool-musician lothario and maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds), and moody lawyer’s daughter Emily (Kristen Stewart), whom he becomes particularly interested in.

Such is the basic premise and general plot map of Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, a naturalistic reminiscence-of-youth picture saved from the generic morass by some interesting ensemble performances and a noticeable tinge of melancholy. Disaffected and/or economically under-flush youth smoke pot and drink beer and make out and tiptoe around sex and commitment and the spectral dread of their own futures, as a litany of period rock and pop music fills the soundtrack (did regular American kids in the mid-1980s really listen to that much Lou Reed and David Bowie? I feel like not).

For Mottola (who writes and directs), James’ summer at a clunky amusement park where the illusion of fun is maintained on a shoestring budget and underlied by a variety of schemes and cheats and general labour apathy seems to be a subtle metaphor for the American society and economy of the late Reagan years. The then-President appears briefly on a television, offering double-talking excuses for the Iran Contra scandal, while the money-first nation that his policies have engendered grinds on, failing all but the most privileged (James’ putative travel buddy and assumed NYC roommate has a “revelatory” experience in the capitals of Europe, changes his whole perspective… and enrolls in Harvard Business School). James and pipe-smoking Russian lit major Joel have no marketable job skills to get them a position anywhere but Adventureland, while the privileged but sulky Emily only works there to escape her unsatisfying home life. Connell, for all of his big-man-on-campus appeal at the park, is a perpetual drifter dude, with an unstable mother and a cocktail-waitress wife whom he frequently cheats on. Like the amusement park itself, everyone is a bit broken-down, paint peeling in places, but keeps going anyway: their lives, like America itself, are being inexorably dragged out of a patchwork fantasy version of reality into a harsher but weirdly liberating milieu.

Eisenberg rides his alternately easy-going and nerdy quasi-Asperger’s charm, but is allowed silent, contemplative moments to suggest how disconcerting the idea of rootlessness is to this young man. His James shares wordless glances with his humbled father whose demotion has proscribed his son’s hopes as his fastidious, intruding mother prattles out guilt-trips. His disappointments find common cause with those of Emily, whose mother died and whose father swiftly remarried to a superficial woman who can find little common ground with her stepdaughter. Eisenberg is the protagonist but Stewart is Adventureland‘s warm and sometimes volatile core. Taken in isolation, Em might well have seemed petulant or irresponsible, but Stewart nimbly evades the callow teenager act that she later expanded to pop-mythic proportions in the Twilight movies. There was a living, breathing, emoting actress in there before she was asked to choose between a beefcake werewolf and a sparkly vampire, and this is part and parcel of the lining of the tragic that surrounds Adventureland.

This melancholic element never really undermines the comedic tone, but then this is not a laugh-out-loud farce by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a gentle and thoughtful young-adult comedy-drama that’s sometimes amusing but just a bit more often sad and oddly cathartic. It shares the capital-R Romantic sensibility of its protagonist, who talks about deciding not to sleep with a college girlfriend after a Shakespearean sonnet convinces him that he doesn’t love her and makes a mix-tape of guaranteed bummer tunes for the girl he thinks he might love. A production tidbit sums up the movie’s tone of pathos perfectly: although set in summer, it was shot in Pennsylvania in wintertime. No wonder its memory of younger days feels so distinctly wistful.

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