Review by Brad Nguyen
The synopsis for Adventureland sounds familiar enough, but writer/director Greg Mottola is not so much concerned with cliches as he is concerned with pop mythology. Adventureland is a film that has been filtered through a million Beach Boys songs, a million coming-of-age movies, a million Catchers in the Rye, a million OCs and Freaks and Geeks. I’m talking about the mythology of the teenager, or in Adventureland‘s case, the early-twenties post-adolescent. While the idea of the teen is often associated with low culture and superficiality, an enduring American tendency in pop culture is the construction of adolescence as bittersweet, that peculiar combination of melancholy and optimism.
Set in the summer of 1987, the plot follows James (played by The Squid and the Whale‘s Jesse Eisenberg), who has recently graduated from college with a major in comparative literature. His grand plans of a trip through Europe before studying journalism in New York are dashed when his dad gets demoted, forcing James to take a summer job. With a degree in literature, James is only able to land a job at the derelict amusement park Adventureland. It’s there that he discovers possible love with Em (Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart) and learns that real life is much more complicated than he imagined it.
The retro setting allows for some great music on the soundtrack (Lou Reed, David Bowie) including some sublime music montages set to The Cure, Crowded House and Judas Priest. I never thought that I would buy ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ to sell an emotional moment, but wedded to Mottola’s iconic imagery (as in the image above: the fairground setting, the fireworks, the spectators in the background, the sad companion in the midground and the gangly, awkward figures in the foreground with excitement and trepidation on their faces), these sequences rise to the level of the classic, the operatic, rather than the cheap empty spectacles they could have been.
The cheap empty spectacle is easily what Adventureland might have been. The film is shot in sun-drenched nostalgia with the grainy texture of the best films of the seventies. Marxist critic Fredric Jameson might well have accused Adventureland of appropriating past styles and commodifying them into empty signifiers. Yet there is a reason to Adventureland‘s retro setting. As much as the film is about a summer love, it is also a subtle critique of the middle-America consumer-values of the Reaganite era. Jesse Eisenberg’s James represents that particular period when the romantic ideals of young twentysomethings nurtured by university get thrown under the truck by reality and they are faced with the scary propositions of either succumbing to the pressure of living a sensible, undistinguished middleclass life or pursuing one’s dreams with the uncertainty of success or happiness. The main characters of Adventureland are different from your average teen film in that they are not just a bunch of horny kids. They’re the kind of people who idolise Jack Kerouac, intelligent with a sense of adventure and a desire to break from the norm. Yet Mottola is also smart enough to poke fun at James’ pretensions even as he ultimately sympathises with them (James proudly proclaims, ‘I read poetry for pleasure sometimes’, with an embarassing lack of self-awareness). I know I’ve already mentioned Freaks and Geeks, but if ever there was a spiritual companion to that short-lived but treasured television show, it’s Adventureland. The adventures that James and his friends get up to are the sorts of adventures I’d imagine Lindsay Weir would have in the aftermath of college.
Adventureland has been marketed as a broad comedy and much has been made of the fact that Mottola’s previous directing gig was the hilarious Superbad. But it’s ultimately a different beast to Superbad. That film’s humour was much more sign-posted: Dick jokes and period blood obviously designated themselves as ‘comedy moments’. Adventureland is equally hilarious (I actually think I laughed out loud more than in Superbad) but its humour is subtler, more organic to the scenes. The laughs come less from outrageous situations and more from the pain of watching awkward adolescent courtship. All the lowbrow teen comedy elements are there too – vomiting, boners, weed – but even the most lowbrow elements have a sense of truth to them. Even the requisite obnoxious prankster who spends most of the film punching people in the balls attains a sense of tragedy about him as you realise he’s probably the guy who gets left behind by all his friends. It’s Adventureland‘s superb marriage of pop film-making, emotional truth and subtle social commentary that makes it one of my favourite mainstream films of the year.
SEE THIS WITH:
Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999)
Sofia Coppola shares with Mottola a sophisticated understanding of the emotional affect of video clip aesthetics. Mottola’s film is probably less determined to designate itself as an ‘art’ film, but who can argue with 10cc at the high school dance in the gymnasium?
The Daytrippers (Greg Mottola, 1996)
This is Mottola’s debut feature. I’ve never seen it but if someone knows how I might get my hands on a copy, let me know.
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