April 4, 2009

Adventureland (04/04/09)

Lettergrade: A

Adventureland isn't quite as funny as director Greg Mottola's previous picture, Superbad, but in virtually every other way it's a much better movie. I was surprised by that, I must say, because the ads have been running almost nonstop for the last few weeks, which I usually interpret as a sign that the movie probably sucks. Adventureland doesn't: Mottola reportedly used his own experiences working at the real Adventureland theme park on Long Island for the screenplay, and the result is an interesting, thoughtful story that feels like it came from a real place, rather than the usual teen comedy template book.

Set in 1987, the picture is largely about what happens to Jesse Eisenberg's character one summer when his dad gets demoted, and he's forced to take a shitty job working at a crappy amusement park outside of Pittsburg in order to pay for grad school in the fall. Like Caddyshack and Office Space before it, Adventureland scores some major points by playing on the universal theme of having to do a job that you really hate. The majority of the movie moves at a casual pace and deals with how Eisenberg fits in with this assorted collection of kids from other walks of life who mostly have other ambitions and priorities. There's a girl, of course, played by the permanently stoned-looking Kristen Stewart (of Twilight fame), and although they like each other right away, it's a complicated relationship with many stops and starts.

I was surprised by how well the character stuff works in the second half of the movie, in particular, but I must admit that it took me a little bit of time to get into the first part. During the first or second scene, Eisenberg has a chat with his buddies about the fact that he's graduating college and is still a virgin. "Fuck," I muttered silently, "it's one of those movies." Luckily, though, such teen sex comedy mainstays go away fairly quickly, and the movie gets into more original territory fast. There are a couple faint traces of elements like that, actually, which feel suspiciously like they might have been in there prior to Superbad's success, and before Mottola had the credit-line to get a movie like this made without being a little more main-stream. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, two of the best players on Saturday Night Live these days, have several scenes as the couple that runs the amusement park. Their bits are certainly funny, but they almost feel like they're from a different movie at the same time.

Other observations... At first I had trouble remembering that the movie is set in 1987, particularly because the fonts and all the sets felt extremely 70s. After a moment, though, I realized it made perfect sense as this is not a new, flourishing amusement park, but a fading one that is stuck a little bit in the past. The songs on the radio aren't always completely current either, which adds nice layer too. Although some, like Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over," really did debut in 87, others like the Lou Reed and Velvet Underground tunes are still being played because the people in the movie like them, adding a nice bit of cultural context.

All in all, it's the sort of progression that you really hope for in a director from one movie to the next. Like Mottola's previous movie, this one is still bawdy and very funny, but it also has a reason to exist other than the for the sake of some jokes, and that's no easy thing to pull off. Superbad is a good version of a standard teen sex comedy, whereas Adventureland is a good movie.

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