Thursday, April 9, 2009


“Adventureland” is my favorite film of the year so far, a wise and winning look at the awkwardness and yearning of first love, and the struggle to carve an identity for oneself while navigating those roadblocks life throws at you.

It’s a rich, bittersweet and touching movie, quite different from the advertising campaign which makes it out to be a rowdy comedy. It’s not, and the film is better for it.

Set in 1987, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) thinks he’s going to graduate school in New York in the fall following a summer sojourn to Europe. Reality sets in when his family faces a financial crisis, and his trip to Europe is scuttled. Without his parent’s financial help for grad school, James is forced to take a job over the summer at Adventureland, a nearby amusement park, to earn money

The park is run by an odd married couple played by Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig, both from “Saturday Night Live.” Hader is a hilarious, wigged out amusement park owner, and is nicely complemented by Wiig, an equally spaced-out wife. Reality rarely seeps into their hermetically-sealed, amusement park-centered world.

James befriends and falls in love with co-worker Em (Kristen Stewart), who has a relationship with the much older married maintenance worker Mike (Ryan Reynolds). Em comes from a troubled home but is a good person and is trying to find herself and her place.

The park’s workers are an interesting bunch. Everyone smokes pot and gets high a lot and there’s lots of sexual activity, both real and imagined.

I especially liked Joel (Martin Starr), a most likeable sad sack type who is perpetually stoned to make it through the drudgery of working at Adventureland (and, one suspects, life itself). He also utters my favorite movie line in a long time, where he and equally stoned Sue (Paige Howard) find themselves making out in a car one night.

I didn’t know who the actress was playing Sue until the end credits, and saw her name was Paige Howard. Since she was a redhead I guessed she was Ron Howard’s daughter and sister of Bryce Dallas Howard and I was right. She has a bright future ahead of her, but then I’m partial to redheads.

Many painful truths and lessons are learned before the movie is over. Writer/Director Greg Mottola obviously likes these characters, despite the damage they do to themselves and others. I also liked the fact that Terry Stacey’s cinematography is kind of grimy, looking like a film made in 1987, and not given the digital sheen typical of many movies today.

Good acting is on display all around, especially by Eisenberg and Stewart. These two characters are made for each other if they only they were wise enough to realize it.

I also liked Ryan Reynolds’ performance quite a bit. He takes a philandering character preying on impressionable young girls and makes us understand him and yes, even like him. He’s not the stock bad guy. Reynolds is one of those actors that I don’t think gets the credit he should. He makes it look so easy. Hopefully this will change, as this is some of his best work.

Much has been written by others about the smart use of songs in the movie. I’ll take their word for it. Though I was 25 in 1987, I rarely listened to the radio and was completely out of the loop when it came to contemporary music. I was more concerned with wondering when the next Jerry Goldsmith-scored movie was coming out. So I guess songs by the likes of Crowded House work just fine; indeed this is the type of movie that cries for a song-based score, so I’ll the word of the rock experts that the right songs were chosen.

I never had a summer job like working at a place like Adventureland, but I did work for two years of high school and almost four years of college at a small, local grocery store, so there was much in “Adventureland” I related to. A lot of us really didn’t like the job, or the low pay, but we liked each other and would often go to each other’s houses for parties or go bowling or have outings of some kind.

“Adventureland” has several scenes of the workers visiting with each other in the parking lot after their shifts are over. I remember those times. Many a summer night was spent hanging in the parking lot visiting with each other after work. There was strong camaraderie and because many of us were roughly the same age, there were lots of flirtations and rivalries for the guys with the new cashier or the girls with the new stockboy/bagger.

One memory came at me full force while watching “Adventureland”, a memory I hadn’t thought of in a long time. For a period of time I worked the Friday night shift and one of the cashiers was a cute girl named Gail. One summer weekend a small Jaycees-sponsored carnival set up in the parking lot of the local community college. The store closed on Fridays at 9 p.m. and the carnival was open until 11:00. Several of us decided to carpool it to the carnival that night, but by the time we closed up the store, counted the money, swept the store and prepared it for opening the next morning, it was close to 9:30. A drive to the carnival meant we had only about an hour to spend there. Gail and I broke away from the others and went wandering and found ourselves in the ride section. We stood in front of one of those machines where the seats, shaped like Tilt-o-Whirl seats, flies up in the air and down again. Nothing too strenuous like a roller-coaster, so we decided to check it out, especially since there was no waiting in line. The carnival had started to shut down but we thought we could squeeze a ride in. We went up to the operator, a young kid just a little older than ourselves, to see about going on the ride, but he said, “Sorry, we’re all done for the night.”

Indeed the carnival was shutting down and the other rides were going dark one by one. People had started to stream out to the parking lot.

We must have looked really disappointed, because he looked at us, looked up and down the midway as if looking for his boss and then said, “Get on.” He refused to take our tickets. He proceeded to give us a private ride, just the two of us, with the lights from the ride flashing brightly and the music blaring full blast in an otherwise quiet carnival. I think we were the only activity in the carnival at that time. It was the best carnival ride I was ever on. We thanked him profusely when we got off and he looked at us and said, “No, no, glad to do it.”

I have a feeling the workers in “Adventureland” would have done something similar. Behind the insults, drinking, swearing and pot use beat the hearts of hopeless romantics.

Rating for “Adventureland”: Three and a half stars.

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