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Adventureland: Don’t Judge a Film By Its Trailer

The trailers say, “From the director of Superbad.” Two of the funniest SNL/Apatow supporting actors, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, are peppered all over the commercials and trailer acting goofy. We see some humor involving urine and erections. While Superbad is a classic in its own right, this film could not be farther away. This is more of a coming-of-age romantic dramedy than grossout Apatow-esque chucklefest. There are few “gags”: the majority of the laughs are based in character and narrative. The acting is so lowkey and the pacing so meticulous you’d mistake this film for an indie Sundance flick if you hadn’t seen the trailer. What works best about this film is its heart– its affection for its deeply flawed characters, and its desire for them to learn from their trials and grow. Some do, some don’t. It’s like life. It’s also possibly my favorite film so far this year.

James (Jesse Eisenberg) is living the typical privileged teen life. He smokes pot with his friends, he’s going to take a trip to Europe for the summer, and in the fall, he’s attending Columbia for grad school in journalism. That is, of course, until his father gets demoted and transferred to Pittsburgh. There, if James even wants a prayer at grad school, he’ll have to take a summer job. He is unqualified for most jobs (he gives his SAT scores during one interview), and thus he is relegated to a job at Adventureland, a C-grade amusement park run by Bobby and Paulette (Hader and Wiig). He befriends other coworkers who also feel above their menial job, such as Joel (Martin Starr of Knocked Up and Freaks and Geeks) and Em (Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame). He falls hard for Em, but Em seems to have a strange connection with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the maintenance man. The typical questions arise: What future path will he choose? Will he lose his virginity, or find true love, or both?

While the typical coming-of-age questions arise, I found the execution of the process of answering the questions anything but. I understand that this film is very personal to writer/director Greg Mottola, and like the best personal films, the passion of delivering his memories as faithfully (while fictionalized) as possible shows. Yet unlike Cameron Crowe’s terrific Almost Famous, which was almost like a fantastical look back at an unusual childhood, Mottola takes a realistic downbeat approach. Not many “big dramatic” moments are recollected– often, the characters don’t speak much when they occur. The “big laughs” aren’t really there, but if you’re sucked into the world of the film as I was, you don’t miss them. The lines of how people are affected by events are blurred, such as when James finds out something late in the film about his father. The way he handles it is extremely fascinating, and while there’s no father-son moment where everything is explained, I get the sense that their relationship has changed.

Relationships change without a big speech explaining why they’ve changed? A movie with SNL stars and sex jokes doesn’t contain big gags? In today’s film market, this type of movie is a rarity. It’s box office poison, hence the misleading trailers. It’s a lot harder to put “an honest, true-to life film” in an advertisement. Nowadays, in this economic climate, folks don’t want to face honest reality in film. It’s why most of the Oscar-nominated films tanked, but the fantasy Slumdog Millionaire soared. It’s why Adventureland made next to no money, and Fast and Furious set a record for April at the box office. Folks want the escapism, they want the fantasy. Of course those are not the only reasons certain films failed to make money and others succeeded… but one can’t help but notice a trend in the types of films making money. Paul Blart? Sweet, funny, not real. Taken? Action-packed, violent, not real. Madea Goes To Jail? It’s a man in a dress, for God’s sake. This film requires attention, getting to know characters at their own pace, engaging in their lives.

Another reason why this film would turn some off is that the characters aren’t necessarily likable at all times. Again, this might be a shocker to us perfect individuals sitting in the theater, but characters act like jerks, they lie, they step on iffy moral ground. This isn’t a film about these moments, but when coming-of-age, when people you care for mess up in some way, it changes you. None of these felt like the contrived “final act conflict” we see in so many films– these feel like mistakes that real kids would make. Ryan Reynolds in particular does a wonderful job of playing a guy we all know some variation on– the guy that hits on girls clearly too young for them– and actually succeeds in making him disarmingly charming. Instead of being the easy villain, we befriend him too. He’s not acting malicious, he’s just doing what he feels. I think Reynolds has the capacity to become a sensational actor if he continues to follow roles like these and not more of that National Lampoon garbage where they make him some sort of older version of Stifler from American Pie.

This film rides on the main two characters, and Eisenberg and Stewart are constantly the two characters you can’t take your eyes off of (can you imagine, a film in which the romantic leads are more enthralling than their comedic supporting best friends?). They both deliver subtle, complex, but ultimately funny and touching performances. Mottola handles the proceedings with grace, and seamlessly blends what could have felt like an episodic summer adventure film into something far more linear. The laughs are there, but not where you’d expect. You’ll likely also find yourself moved, but again, not in ways which you’d expect. Perhaps part of why I loved this movie was in the pleasant surprise of finding a film totally different from the trailer which worked better than I’d imagined. Perhaps it’s because I’ve felt the way the main character felt, and I immediately felt sympathy for a character that others may dismiss as a “privileged white upper-class brat.” Perhaps after a few months, I’ll be able to step out of the film’s world and watch it more dispassionately. But what’s the point in writing a dispassionate review if the film made a cold-hearted film critic passionate?

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~ by russellhainline on April 11, 2009.

2 Responses to “Adventureland: Don’t Judge a Film By Its Trailer”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. It’s a pity about the box-office, but that doesn’t alter the fact that this is a great movie. And Kristen and Jesse are amazing!

  2. […] Chance of Meatballs 9. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber- (500) Days of Summer 8. Greg Mottola- Adventureland 7. Scott Z. Burns- The Informant! 6. Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, and Thomas McCarthy- Up 5. Jonathan […]

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