Movies That Rule: Adventureland (2009)
Coming out of college with an unusual major and no job prospects is a hell of a scary thing. Higher ed. ends so goddamn abruptly, and many of us are in no way prepared for those final days. I spent my entire last semester at school in some kind of sustained haze, grilling burgers, drinking beer out on the back deck with friends and somehow managing to get the highest semester GPA I’d ever achieved in college. I guess I’d figured out all of the ways to succeed at college without really trying. That, in turn, gave me false hope that I’d amount to anything out there in the “real world.”
The night before I graduated, I was relaxing in my favorite dive bar with a bunch of my best friends. We weren’t nostalgic even after ordering our sixth pitcher of the night. Instead, we talked about random crap like it was any other night of any other year of college. The next day, I got up, put on a shirt and tie, and zipped up my gown. And after the keynote speaker and the whole pomp-and-circumstance, I walked back to my old college house, tossed the tassled cap onto the couch, threw the last of my stuff in my Volvo, peeled away from the curb and, only about 30 miles into my trip back home, realized the overwhelming terror.
“Oh, shit,” I muttered to myself listening to an R.E.M. disc. “What the hell am I going to do? Why didn‘t I stick around just one more night?” Of course, what I really wanted wasn’t simply one more night, but three or four more years. I had no job prospects at all. Not a good start when entering into the worst job market since 1991.
And unlike Adventureland’s protagonist, I had no plans of grad school. I only knew that, as a Political Science major, I had absolutely no intention of going to law school, still the normal ‘forward path’ for many people with that degree. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is in a different territory, sort of–a comparative literature major from Oberlin with the goal of becoming a journalist, he has future plans, but he‘ll need to rethink them.
It’s May 1987 when Adventureland opens. James learns unfortunately during a post-grad dinner with his parents his dad’s been “transferred to another department,” and his parents won’t be fronting him the cash for his eight-week Eurotrip, much less helping him pay rent in Manhattan while at graduate school. It’s a real “Oh Shit” moment for the guy, and it couldn’t possibly have come at a worse time.
James Brennan is a really sharp guy, still a virgin, still starry-eyed about the power of education and actually acquiring knowledge (he remarks to his very wealthy college housemate that he “reads poetry for pleasure”). Like most comparative literature majors, he’s completely blindsided by the horrors of the real world and a bad economy. He tells his mom he has no idea of what to do unless “someone needs a fresco restored.” While he thought he’d be kicking back in France and Germany for a few months post-grad, he’s going back home to live with mom and dad and forced to get the dreaded summer job.
After applying to a couple of jobs at restaurants and finding out he has no experience in that field, James goes to work at a big amusement park, manning goofy carnival-type games with his buddy Frigo, a guy who insists on punching him in the nuts as a standard greeting (instead of, say, giving him a high five).
Things could be hell on earth for James, except for the fact that he meets a wonderful cast of characters, his workmates: the cynical, hilarious Joel (Martin Starr); Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the guitar-playing maintenance guy who apparently jammed with Lou Reed once; and Em (Kristen Stewart), the sharp and beautiful girl that, as an NYU undergrad, seems far too smart to be working at an amusement park.
At this point, Adventureland starts to play itself out on two levels. In the most basic respect, it’s a pic about shitty summer jobs, about the hope for romance, about getting stoned and drunk every night because, face it, the work these kids do during the day demands absolutely no cognitive ability. We can all relate because we’ve all worked jobs like this–whether it be flipping burgers, lifeguarding or working at the mall, we know the dualistic joy of irresponsibility and the misery of boredom in these minimum-wage gigs.
Yet, on a deeper level, there’s massive uncertainty lurking. While the kids who’re still in high school can afford to screw around all summer long, James picks up extra shifts, trying to figure out how to make enough money to pay for graduate school on his own. That he must reassess his future at such an inconvenient time adds to the more ‘serious’ aspect of the story. On top of that, we sense watching the film that the laid-back work environment at a place like Adventureland will probably be dead a few years later when a corporation decides to buy the park out.
The owners of the Adventureland, Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in two brilliant performances), know more than any adults should about running a theme park. They’re weirdly enthusiastic about their jobs, but also a touch cynical when it‘s most necessary. When James goes to apply for a job at the park just two weeks after graduation, he doesn’t even have to speak, much less interview to make minimum wage. Coming into the ‘executive’ office, he’s surprised that no one cares about his former experience mowing his neighbor’s lawn.
“By accepting this [Games] T-shirt, you are…,” Bobby says, half-seriously, before Paulette simply mutters, “hired,” finishing the sentence with a mild eye-roll. Bobby mentions that the ceremonial passing of the “Games” T-shirt to his employees is usually more momentous, and this scene gets some of the biggest laughs of the picture.
The only advice the pair can offer James is: “No one ever wins a giant-ass panda.” When, on James’s second day, someone does indeed win the most coveted amusement park prize by managing to beat a rigged game, the literature major frets about his future at Adventureland. Far from a snobby post-grad, James takes his crappy job pretty seriously. The scene is doubly amusing and serious: James doesn’t shirk responsibility in the face of a bad economy, but thinks his life is over when one kid walks away with the huge stuffed panda bear. We see Eisenberg’s face fall a bit, and watch Kristen Stewart’s easygoing charisma jolt him back from melancholy.
And while ironic speech patterns and pop-culture references abound throughout Adventureland, serious emotional connection between its characters is palpable. In fact, the cast blends so perfectly, one could see it spinning off into a relatively good sitcom. (I mean that as a compliment, actually.)
Adventureland could certainly be a lamer film. It could be a stupid throwaway party flick where kids spend their entire summers getting hammered, fucking and (maybe) finding romance in the most vapid ways. Hell, it might’ve been a more successful pic if it took the easier way out. Thankfully, it instead aims toward Hughesian territory, giving its young adults the chance to actually form meaningful relationships instead of having them trade pointless dialogue and share badly filmed sex scenes.
Amid the gratuitous alcohol and pot consumption, there are a host of complications, including a blossoming romance between James and Em, both like-minded intellectuals with baggage. They both care very much for each other, but find it hard to build a stable relationship because of their insecurities.
Em, every college intellectual’s wet-dream, has an ongoing affair with Connell, the maintenance guy, for the shallowest of reasons. James, the bright but hopelessly insecure virgin, can’t help but lust after the park’s sexpot, Lisa P, especially after Em gives him the brush off in an abrupt, yet exceptionally true-to-life scene.
Among all of these complications are bits of humor, sprinkled perfectly throughout the entirety of the pic. Bobby and Paula, played by SNL vets Hader and Wiig, provide a comic center, serving as less-than-ideal mentors to the teenage and twenty-something workers. In one scene, Joel gets beat up by a rowdy client, and James finds himself, after slugging the attacker in retaliation, running for shelter in Bobby’s office with Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” screaming in the background and the attacker in tow.
Once he bursts into the office terrified, breathlessly shouting “People are trying to kill me!,” Paula flips a baseball bat directly into Bobby’s hands as though the motion was second nature. When the testosterone-rushed parkgoer tries to break through the office door and start a fight with anyone inside, Bobby, wild-eyed, simply holds up the bat threateningly and launches into a profanity-laced schpeel. “Get out of my doorway, motherfucker!” he screams. “Just give me a fucking reason! You don’t know what I’m capable of!” The attacker, who was ridiculously macho seconds earlier, naturally runs off like a scared toddler.
But other comic scenes are less obvious, as when James and Joel talk about the abundance of bad music flowing through Adventureland’s stereo. As the epically horrific pop tune “Rock Me Amadeus” blares in the background, James simply insists that he’d rather have an ice pick shoved into his aural canal than hear one more song by Falco. Because the soundtrack in Adventureland spans Lou Reed to Big Star to The Cure, it’s hilarious to hear “Rock Me Amadeus” polluting the airwaves multiple times throughout our protagonist’s summer. And anyone whose ever spent time at a theme park knows that, unfortunately, the songs playing from those speakers-disguised-as-rocks are generally awful.
And, when the younger guy Frigo insists on punching James in the balls every chance he gets, we consistently laugh at his sophomoric antics. Somehow, that shit is still funny when you’re 24.
Clearly, Adventureland is not an entirely serious movie (nor does it strive to be), but, compared to director Greg Mottola’s Superbad (2007), it’s got quite a bit more heft. While I would never be caught saying a negative word about Mottola’s first picture, an often hilarious and insightful film about teenagers, Adventureland is different, and is, in some ways like a Breakfast Club for the early-20s crowd.
Mottola does something unusual by placing his young adult characters into a traditionally teenage environment. When injecting smart college students into shitty jobs, he faithfully shows how they’d react in those situations. Unsurprisingly, they do, in some ways, behave like teens from a John Hughes picture. Yet, in other ways, the characters, many several years past age 17, are more insightful and jaded. They all seem to kind of dislike their parents, sure, but the ways in which they react to the ‘authority figures’ in the movie are fresh and more nuanced.
Mottola’s script is extremely strong, but it‘s the actors’ charm, wit and depth that bring his writing to life. Eisenberg, who I first saw in The Squid and the Whale (2005), is fantastic, playing a bright and awkward college grad pitch-perfectly. His character is kind of a throwback to the intellectual post-grads in the movie Kicking and Screaming (1995; Noah Baumbach, interestingly, directed both The Squid and Kicking). James, like the characters in the 1995 film, is almost too educated and strange to fit into the typical 9-to-5 world. After watching Eisenberg come alive in this film, The Squid, Roger Dodger (2002; an underrated film, I may add) and of course The Social Network, I’m positive that he’s one of America’s best young actors.
As for Kristen Stewart…holy shit. She brings a depth to this role that I could never have expected going in, especially after watching her sleepwalk through a couple of the Twilight sagas. It’s obvious that she’s a gifted actress and more than capable of playing a sensitive young woman. While she could approach her character, one with amazing natural beauty, intelligence and good taste, with an air of pretension, Stewart does the unexpected–she plays Em honestly. This makes her a perfect match for Eisenberg’s character. Their chemistry isn’t smoldering, but a bit understated and comfortable. Their scenes together provide many of the film’s pleasures.
Ryan Reynolds, who was, in party pics like Waiting… and Van Wilder, completely competent and uninteresting, does a lot with his supporting role. Here he gives his best performance, playing a character well-suited to his real life nice-guy personality. No doubt good-looking, Connell is still a depressing case like David Wooderson from Dazed and Confused, working a mediocre job, banging girls ten years his junior and lying about how he once played guitar with Lou Reed. It’s good to see Reynolds play a character who is a little less of a superficial asshole and a little more humble and unsure of himself.
And Martin Starr, as the hyper-cerebral Joel, is a welcome addition to the cast. Though I got the idea in a couple of early scenes he was trying way too hard to sound hip, he becomes more interesting throughout the course of Adventureland. When a girl breaks his heart near the end, Joel reveals himself to be a fascinating and deep character and not just another lovesick 20 year old using pop-culture references and sardonic humor to get through each day.
I was baffled by a great majority of the reviews for Adventureland. Many critics didn’t pan Mottola’s second pic–they simply ignored it. It became the typical 3-star film of 2009, and a whole lot of good movie critics called it “nice” and “sweet” and the like. In many reviews, there were no interesting observations about the characters and no analyses of the similarities between the 1987 and 2009 economic climates. Later in 2009, when critics were talking endlessly about Up In The Air, Precious, and An Education, they failed to give even a second mention to a truly great film about young adults.
After recently writing about Dazed, another film that critics seemed to mildly enjoy but quickly forget, I’m convinced this pic, like Dazed, will garner further acclaim and exposure in future years. As movies like The English Patient have already disappeared into the catacombs, Dazed lives on, enjoyed by heaps of moviegoers in the 18 years since its initial release.
It’s my hope (and prediction) that, in five or six years, Adventureland will join the ranks of Dazed and The Breakfast Club as one of the most perceptive movies about young adults of the past few decades.
Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Adventureland is not the great movie I believe it to be. Yet, I will, for the rest of my life, treasure one scene where the characters fuck around in bumper cars after eating pot brownies with The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” playing in the background. My friend‘s statement about this scene was dead-on: “You just can’t teach this stuff.” That statement applies to the movie in general–you can’t teach people how to make a movie like Adventureland. Even in its simplicity, it defies formula almost every step of the way.