tongue-tied lightning

Adventureland (Mottola, 2009)
April 7, 2009, 4:38 AM
Filed under: film


Adventureland is a surprisingly subtle film. Marketed as an Apatow-esque comedy, it’s actually much mature and nuanced than the trailer would suggest. It concerns James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) working in an amusement park the summer after he graduates from college. It perfectly captures that sense of post-graduation ennui, stuck between adolescence and adulthood.

James smokes pot and chases after women, much like the characters of Mottola’s previous film Superbad, but he also has a deep appreciation for literature (“I read poetry for fun!”) and seems to be searching for a deeper meaning in life. Just as the characters are more mature, so too is the film itself. It frequently dispenses with plot and spends long stretches of time getting to know the characters. The mood is less Superbad and more Dazed & Confused.

The film has a very low-key feeling. Many of the jokes are so downplayed my audience didn’t even laugh at them. This is a virtue not only of the writing and delivery but is also aided by the editing and composition.  A scene will frequently cut shortly after a joke or the camera will begin to follow something else as a joke plays in the background.  The jokes are there, most of them quite witty and sure to be appreciated on repeat viewings, but they aren’t given an inflated importance.

The character of Frigo, a childhood friend of Jesse’s (“We were best friends, and then I turned four”), seems to exist to provide a more obvious and crass source of jokes.  It is more in tune with the trailer than the film and the audience I saw it with seemed to be more in tune with his jokes than those in the rest of the film.  The film seems to exploit him, but the more prominent characters disregard him as childish and annoying. The other key source of humor is the pairing of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, representing the best of the current dismal SNL cast. They manage the theme park in the film.  They aren’t playing too far from type (but it is a wonderfully amusing type) and they, like the character of Frigo, seem to exist primarily for comic relief.

But comedy doesn’t seem to be the primary focus of Adventureland, the film seems to care more about getting to know it’s characters and capturing the feeling of struggling to find your place in the world.  It’s a feeling I’m quite familiar with and I felt Mottola and crew were quite effective in channeling it.  On the dramatic end, Kristen Stewart is quite effective as James primary love interest.  Ryan Reynolds gives a wonderfully understated performance, proving yet again his talents are wasted in films like Van Wilder and Waiting.

The music is quite good.  Mottola seems to stick with the higher points of the 80s and shies away from the garbage the decade is remembered for.  Lots of Lou Reed and The Replacements and another wonderful score from Yo La Tengo.  I have never been a huge fan of them as a band, but this is the fourth film I’ve seen that was scored by them and all of them are fantastic.

I do have a few complaints with the film.  As A.O. Scott pointed out in his review, one of the major plot points towards the end feels forced and James reaction to it seems a bit out of character.  Also, the final scene is the definition of cliche.  It is handled well, but I can’t help wondering if the film would’ve been better were it removed altogether.  Still this doesn’t diminish the effect the rest of the film has.  Deceptively mature, it has me quite eager to go back and check out Mottola’s debut film, Daytrippers, perhaps Superbad (a film I am a fan of) was the exception for him and not the rule.


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