Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 02, 2009 10:19 am 
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Location: California/NYC
Also published on Cinescene.


Coming of age in Eighties Pittsburgh

Greg Mottola, director of the mega-hit Apatow comedy Superbad, has another, much more personal, go at the young American male zeitgeist in Adventureland, which he both wrote and directed this time, and which focuses on a recent college graduate in Pittsburgh in the Reagon era. It's the summer of 1987 (a moment underlined with a rich, sometimes intentionally maddening song soundtrack). Young James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has been accepted at the Columbia journalism school and looks forward to his first trip abroad with a friend. But Lady Luck messes with James. Due to an economic downturn, his dad's suffered a salary cut. His parents not only back out of paying for the Europe jaunt; they won't bankroll lodging in New York for him either. In desperation James looks for summer jobs, but finds that high SAT scores and an honors degree in comparative literature don't even qualify him for manual labor. The choice of last resort to which he falls heir is "games" carnie at a second-rate fairground called Adventureland where showing up sober is the only requirement. It's in this tacky world, of rotting corn dogs, barfing children, threatening contestants and bored young men and women with even more diminished expectations--his coworkers--that James must find (or salvage) love and friendship and hope for the future. And guess what? He does. And, somehow or other, much like the young hero of Thumbsucker, he makes it to New York.

Some smart casting and some witty writing as well as constant interludes of amusement park atmosphere save this from utter conventionality. Jesse Eisenberg is the cute, skinny young Jewish guy who was Jeff Daniels' hard to fool older son in Noah Baumbach's much celebrated The Squid and the Whale. Eisenberg has done lots of things since, but this may be his biggest role so far, the one he was made to play. His James is a virgin with an East Coast Jewish sense of irony. He also has a foolish, if admirable, tendency to always tell the truth. What he's not is a horny dweeb like Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in Superbad. He's chivalrous and articulate--maybe more articulate than he needs to be to get to second base, but also enough to give the audience the feeling of a literary sensibility in play. He's not a hunk like handsome, married loser Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park handyman and a would-be musician who may or may not have played one gig with Lou Reed, but he's much easier to care about. Eisenberg has the mannerisms of intelligent naivety down, and his understated rapid fire delivery is spot on. Whether or not he's meant to be Jewish, the aura of the young Jewish intellectual-to-be surrounds him. He can't describe his journalistic aims without mentioning Charles Dickens' writing about prisons.

The movie, though ostensibly in coming-of-age rather than buddy-picture mode, tries a bit too hard to be gross in the contemporary Apatow manner, to be mainstream I guess, and not hard enough to avoid the standard clichés of the coming-of-age film. Adventureland barely goes anywhere new. But that's not to say that Eisenberg, Kirsten Stewart (heartbreakingly wispy and alluring as James' troubled--and complex--new girlfriend, Em), and a handful of other actors aren't quite charming and watchable--or that the movie doesn't have any clever throwaway lines along with the barf and knee-in-the-balls jokes. The intellectual anchor of the piece is James's bespectacled Adventureland pal Joel (Martin Starr), a nihilistic Slavic Studies major whose idea of how to woo a lady is to give her a copy of Gogol's Dead Souls and explain that the author starved himself to death after writing it. Joel is so much more pessimistic, depressed, and articulate that we see James has a chance of happiness despite his innocence about courtship and increasingly uncertain future.

This is a sweet comedy, and it's nice and very rare to see something from a successful Apatow alumnus that's not about a fat guy who wins the babe while remaining a pothead couch potato. Pot plays a significant role here, but James parcels out his bag judiciously and effectively. At the end while he's lost nearly everything, he's still got his dreams and his love. If that doesn't warm your heart, you're a pretty cool customer.

The failings of Adventureland are obvious. Aside from its lack of surprises, for all its jokes it's not particularly funny (though it also avoids turning too dark). Its amusement park setting is original, but not enough individualized. (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the gung-ho park managers Bobby and Paulette do provide glimpses of comedy, though.) The unappealing, loser parents are a cliché. This isn't earth-shaking or side-splitting stuff and its a bit rough around the edges, but it's true to its (doubtless autobiographical) model, a decent and solid little film that is likely to hold its value.

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