Saturday, April 4, 2009

Warning: Adventureland Not As Advertised, But Better

In the trailer for Adventureland, the booming voiceover announcer lets the viewer know that the film’s director and writer, Greg Mottola, was the director of the huge 2007 smash hit comedy Superbad. But he didn’t write it.

The stigma of being known as “the guy who directed Superbad” follows Mottola into his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy about James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent college graduate, and his summer spent working at his local amusement park and chasing one particular girl, Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart).

For all intents and purposes, Adventureland is not Superbad. It isn’t the gut-busting, laugh till it hurts teen sex romp as it was advertised to be. Unfortunately, this may disappoint some looking for just that type of film. As far as I’m concerned, the end result was for the better. Instead of simply funny but not so inflicting film, viewers are treated to an absolutely delightful, likeable and resonating film. To say this is Dazed and Confused of the 1980s would be a rather fair statement.

Adventureland is a very funny film. It’s smart, witty and wise. But what makes the film work as it did are the characters themselves. Mottola gives thought to each and every one of his characters, including lead character James Brennan, who Mottola said he put a bit of himself into. The characters, and their relationships with one another, work at such a grounded and realistic level that it’s absolutely astonishing to watch play out in the dramatic and emotional way it does.

Part one, and it is an important part, of the characters working the way they do is indeed Mottola’s experiential writing. The other credit goes to the entire cast. Jesse Eisenberg is absolutely wonderful as the sometimes unsure and awkward James Brennan. Kristen Stewart, fresh off her rise to fame thanks to her portrayal of Bella in Twilight, couldn’t have played Brennan’s summer flame Em Lewin better. Stewart’s performance will probably go overlooked come next year’s award season, but it shouldn’t, as she makes the audience care more and more as the film moves towards its later romantic and drama laden stages. Adventureland undoubtedly marks the coming-out party for Stewart as an actress to be reckoned with.

What becomes increasingly obvious as Adventureland progresses forward is that the majority of the characters, whether goofy or not and whether important or not, have their own deeper set of motivations and problems. Such holds true for the character of Em, whose troubled home and relationship life is delved into. I think Sean Burns of the Philadelphia Weekly puts it best when he says Adventureland is like a John Hughes film directed by the great French new wave director Francois Truffaut. It’s so deep and emotionally touching yet charming, cool and down to earth on all levels.

Eisenberg and Stewart are aided by a great supporting cast of known and unknown talent. A constant reason of laughter can be credited to SNL cast members Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, the couple that manages the park’s employees. Hader and Wiig add to the goofy, odd and sometimes offbeat humor found throughout the film. Then you’ve got Ryan Reynolds, as the resident creepy older guy. Think Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused. Except married.

If you add in names such as Martin Starr as Joel, the nerdy down on life type, Matt Bush as Tommy Frigo, the embarrassing screwball character who thinks a good joke consists of punching you below the belt, and Margarita Levieva as Lisa P, the perfect girl in the mind of all the park’s employees, the film is left with an appealing and likeable mixture of characters, all who add to the film’s emotional drama and humor in one way or another, large or small.

All this comes full circle back to Greg Mottola and the extraordinary job he did in crafting this fine and rare comedy. The awkward teen comedy genre might be something we’re used to, but Mottola adds such conflict and affliction to his characters and the actors portray them so well that I didn’t care that I might have seen a somewhat similar plot about a guy chasing down the perfect girl over the course of a summer here and there before.

Amid all the recent Judd Apatow produced, directed and written films and the other typical cast of comedies in mainstream cinema, Adventureland stands out in the crowd as something else. The film invokes the passion of youth and to our amusement lets it all play out over the course of a summer inside an amusement park.

I for one am glad the film wasn’t Superbad slightly grown up as advertised. Mottola works wonders behind it all creating a funny, intelligible, smart and plain enjoyable film. I realize it is only April, but Adventureland is the first great film of 2009. It has everything a fan of the genre can ask for and more, as the film leaves the cardboard character world to develop legitimate and genuine character relationships in an active, humorous and relatable carnival world.

Hopefully Mottola’s terrific and compassionate original screenplay won’t be forgotten come Oscar time. If a film as terribly unrealistic, cliché and awful as Juno can get nominated for best picture and best original screenplay I see no reason as to why Mottola’s well-deserved efforts for Adventureland can’t be recognized either.

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