April 3, 2009

Reality in the Wrong Places

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“I want to report on the real state of the world.” So says recent college graduate James, played by Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale), explaining his intent to emulate travel writers like Charles Dickens. He’s got it all figured out: After spending a few months in Europe with his buddies, he will enroll in the Colombia School of Journalism. However, when the first part of those plans falls through, he is forced to spend the summer of 1987 working at Adventureland — a decrepit amusement park that seems right at home with the urban decay of surrounding Pittsburgh. And so is the setup of Adventureland. Written and directed by Greg Mottola, one of Judd Apatow’s protégés and director of Superbad, this film seems too often stuck in the same old mold of comedies: the archetypal characters, the sophomoric humor and the absolute necessity to contain certain plot elements. That’s a real shame because, beneath the jokes that belong in a lesser film, there exists a dark, dramatic, intelligent story that deals with real life problems most comedies won’t dare touch.
The movie wastes no time introducing all of James’ fellow employees. We’ve seen them before. There’s Frigo, the Steve Stiffler of the crew who seems to pop up from nowhere whenever the movie calls for a cheap laugh. Then we have Joel, the pipe-smoking intellectual, played by Martin Starr, who virtually reprises his role — complete with the deadpan delivery — of Bill Haverchuck from the TV series Freaks and Geeks. Fulfilling the hot girl requirement is Lisa P., who tries to look like Madonna but dance like Paula Abdul. Bobby, Bill Hader of Superbad, is the park’s manager.
Since these minor characters are painted in such wide strokes, it’s easy to identify with them. However, they lack the depth of the three major ones: Jesse, Mike and Emily. Ryan Reynolds (Van Wilder) plays Mike, the maintenance guy and an aspiring musician who may or may not have jammed with Lou Reed. Reynolds is trying to broaden his scope as an actor by taking on darker, more complex roles. I don’t think he’s quite there yet. But I will say I didn’t burst into laughter every time he came on screen the way I did when watching him in The Amityville Horror. Kristen Stewart (Twilight), meanwhile, steals almost every scene as Emily — a pretty girl with a troubled home life and a mysterious side. She’s also Jesse’s love interest. I was glad to finally see an unconventional relationship here. There is a certain gender inversion between them. Whereas James is a virgin, has attachment problems and uses Shakespeare to rationalize love, Emily is more promiscuous, aggressive and realistic.
As you’ve probably gathered, this story focuses on character. There’s no conventional plot, but in a film like this why would there be? The characters are looking for meaning and their own personal narratives. Like the merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel looming in the distance or the song “Rock Me Amadeus” playing on loop in the background, these characters’ life trajectories are circular. To inject the story with a traditional design would just seem contrived. Adventureland, then, is refreshing in that regard. It’s confident enough to avoid insisting on a plot. Unlike other films, its reach doesn’t exceed its grasp.
What’s ironic is that although Adventureland, like any other amusement park, is built entirely on simulation and deception, it gives James his first glimpse of the real world he so desperately seeks. The basketball’s rim in the carnival game may be unfairly elliptical, but the people and issues that James encounters are anything but a sham. It is this paradox that gives the film a brain, thus saving it from being a cliché comedy. The characters in this movie are not immune to everyday struggles. Poverty, depression, cynicism, substance abuse, infidelity are all here. In fact, the park itself goes as far as becoming a metaphor for the disillusionment of the American dream. The carnival games are largely unbeatable, so the only way to win the panda, as one scene shows us, is to cheat the system — which in itself is a scam.
When the drama is this intelligent, the humor better stand up. And it very well could have if it were darker and more situational. Instead, much of the comedy is based on erections, vomiting and partying, thus undermining the real issues and preventing Adventureland from being great. It’s easy to label the film as one of those “And then the summer ended” movies, but I think there’s more to it than that. We often go to amusement parks and to movies for the same reason: to escape. As James learns, however, we also get a window to reality. We arrive at the theater fleeing the questions of our own lives. What we don’t plan on is sometimes finding the answers.