Wednesday, April 08, 2009


I have a long list of movies on my horizon this year, some of which I'll catch in the theater. The others are reserved for Netflix, and that's okay.

Adventureland was a film that I was not going to miss. I knew a little about the plot - a coming of age tale set in the most glorious decade of them all: the 1980s. But there was something else there that drew me in: the very real feeling of being in a transitional period, unsure of the next step.

James (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent Oberlin graduate, had grand plans to backpack through Europe for the summer, but that all goes to shit when his dad gets demoted. He's forced to take a job at his hometown amusement park to save money for graduate school. We've all been there, right? We've all been forced to work that menial job with people looking down on us, judging us because of our jobs, our clothes, our hair. Being unable to scream, "I'm smart! I have a college degree! Don't talk to me that way!"

James meets a wide array of people working at the park, from the enthusiastic, slightly insane owners/managers (Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig) who hire him on the spot, to the self-loathing college students stuck there - like him.

Joel (Martin Starr) leads James's orientation, pointing out the ridiculousness of the park. The games are rigged, the rides are just barely safe, and the employees just look to pass each day without seriously contemplating suicide.

And then James meets Em (Kristen Stewart). She's up front and honest and rebels from the ridiculous fashion trends of the eighties. Instead of the matchy outfits with scrunchies, she wears oversized tees and sports flat, lifeless hair. On the surface, she seems like an independent, intelligent woman. But her home life is fucked, she doesn't know what she wants, and she doesn't care about herself much at all. Yet you're drawn to her because of these flaws. You want to know what's going to happen with her. You're rooting for her.

Adventureland was billed as "from the directors of Superbad," which I see as both positive and negative. It's good because it might get more people to the theater, but it's bad because people are going to expect simple, sophomoric humor. I know that people loved Superbad, but I was not one of those people. And Superbad doesn't hold a candle to Adventureland.

With any coming of age film, there is a formula to follow. The main character has to get over a hurdle, discover things about himself, do some seriously stupid things, and come out a little older, a little wiser. Adventureland follows this formula, but not in any order. Instead, you get bits and pieces about the characters at different times. No one is completely explained, leaving a little to the imagination.

If you look back to eighties films - Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, etc., you recognize that they are good movies. The Breakfast Club in particular made a bold statement about high school - that we're all fucked up in our own ways - that brought it to a level unseen before in teenage comedies.

Adventureland took that idea a step further. It wasn't a boy-meets-girl, boy-screws-up, boy-wins-girl-back kind of movie, because that rarely happens in real life. In real life, the girl gets wise to the boy's bullshit, or the boy realizes that the girl is... kind of a bitch. They move on. All of Adventureland's characters are flawed - some are very damaged and clearly need therapy, some are embarrassed with their places in the world, and some are just confused. They all know that "figuring it all out" is not going to happen overnight, and they are accepting of it.

The acting was absolutely phenomenal. Eisenberg is pitch-perfect as a guy stuck between college and the rest of his life, but Kristen Stewart carries the film. While the film is ultimately about James's first summer in the real world, it's really Em's life in which we become most interested, most invested. And overall, it's their gritty, real love story.

Surprisingly, one of the most understated performances in the film is by none other than Van Wilder himself, Ryan Reynolds. His depiction of the park's (secretly) sleazy maintenance man was completely against type and the viewer sees that he has much more range as an actor than his usual role as an overgrown frat boy.

And now? I kind of love Kristen Stewart. She is an extremely talented actress, and I am happy that the success of Twilight has propelled her toward roles she deserves. The praise she's earning for this role is very much justified, and I look forward to her future films.

I want to see Adventureland again, for many reasons. The script is real and doesn't make any apologies for the flaws of its characters. The acting is wonderful. The soundtrack is great. And I left feeling good. Not happy, not sad... good. Refreshed.


Megan said...

I am so glad to read what you thought because I didn't like the movie. I thought Michael Cera would have been a better James and I was going to punch Kristen Stewart if she touched her hair. one. more. time.
But you make very good points and I won't totally discount the movie now. Thank you!

Heather said...

megan - I can totally see how people wouldn't enjoy it. I knew that Mike wouldn't like it, so I went alone. And I'm glad that I did.

It's funny - I didn't even notice Kristen Stewart messing with her hair. I was just so entranced.