Sunday, April 05, 2009
I happened on Say Anything this morning while flipping channels and as usual paused to watch a portion of one of those films that, if you saw it at the right time in your life, made you feel a little better about being a sensitive nonconformist. As I compose my thoughts about Greg Mottola's Adventureland, the film I saw this afternoon, the chance encounter with Say Anything proves a unexpectedly inspiring bit of luck. Say Anything was released in 1987; director Cameron Crowe was beginning his transition from underaged rock journalist to Oscar-winning filmmaker and the world was ready for an optimistic teen comedy about the relationship between a sweetly goofy dropout and Ione Skye's adorable do-gooder. (What a performance by John Mahoney by the way, but that's a topic for another post) Adventureland is set in 1987; its hero James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a slightly older but perhaps more naive version of Cusack's Lloyd Dobler.
In the summer of 1987 being a virgin with a liberal arts degree and parents who had screwed up their careers wasn't that fun. When his parents are unable to fund a pre-grad school trip to Europe Jams is forced to take a job at a rundown carnival called Adventureland. His coworkers are a collection of burnouts with the exception of the cynical but good-hearted Joel (Martin Starr), hot-to-trot Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) and NYU undergrad Em (Kristen Stewart), with whom James quickly becomes infatuated. James is an honorable if slightly clueless guy who's honestly unaware of most of the erotic intrigue going on around him; his speech about why he didn't take advantage of a chance to sleep with an earlier girlfriend (it has to do with a Shakespeare sonnet) is one of the movie's funniest moments. Em is darker and more complicated creation and it's to Mottola and Stewart's credit that apparently no one was interested in making her a Garden State/Elizabethtown-style Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (Though the site of her in a Husker Du T-shirt does have a restorative effect on James) Em is just realizing her power to hurt and her ability to be hurt, and when James discovers her affair with maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds, good enough here for me to put my unexplainable visceral hatred of him on hold) it seems his idyllic summer of pot smoking and making out with Em will turn into an unpleasant memory.
Adventureland is being marketed as a teen comedy based on Mottola's success with Superbad, but its laughs are laughs of recognition as opposed to crudeness. Mottola does two things that comedies about people in their late teens/early 20s usually don't do: he grounds the story in some kind of economic reality and doesn't let his characters forget that the way people behave towards each other has consequences, as when James's date with Lisa P pushes Em back towards Connell. James and Em aren't an obvious couple at first, but Eisenberg gives James just enough self-confidence to make the pairing believable and Stewart cements her post-Twilight status as the go-to actress for "Young Everywoman unaware of her own hotness" roles. There are plenty of movies about graduating from one stage of life to another, but far fewer about the time spent stuck between stations (Hold Steady reference unintentional). The quiet triumph of Adventureland is its ability to capture the mood of the time when your parents start to feel like strangers (there's a brief scene involving James's father and a liquor bottle that's heartbreaking) and that sound you hear is your childhood comfort zone falling apart. The ending will surprise few but that's OK; in Adventureland summer ends but life goes on.