Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Best Time Of Their Lives?

4 out of 4

"Aventureland" may not be the follow-up to "Superbad" fans were waiting for, but nonetheless, it's just as amazing and even more sincere and insightful. This latest feature from writer-director Greg Mottola is less funny and less of a raunchy teen comedy than some may be at first expecting. It's a coming-of-age romance that's not laugh-out-loud funny but rather funny in terms of its wit, subtleties, and observations. Here, the humor grows organically. It appears Mottola has been given more directorial freedom here without the name Judd Apatow slapped somewhere under production. The movie pays great attention to detail in recreating the feel and aura of the 80s, and in that respect, the movie is also lovingly nostalgic.

It's 1987 in Pittsburgh, and James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is fresh out of college and doesn't have enough money to attend Columbia graduate school like he planned. And so, to fill up the months over the summer, the only job he can land himself is one at a run-down amusement park called Adventureland. James comes across other twenty-somethings who are in a similar predicament as him, including Joel (Martin Starr) who majored in something obscure and literary, basically uselessness, just like James. Their majors technically qualify each of them to have a legitimate career, but the bitter reality is that there are no quick jobs involving writing travelogues like Charles Dickens or analyzing Russian literature. Joel could be considered a straight-up nerd, but he cleverly negates that by announcing his own lack of coolness by smoking a pipe.

There's also the hottie of the park, a rides worker named Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) whose style is a replica of an 80s Madonna, and she is wanted by every guy working at Adventureland as if they're all genetically required to picture her naked. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play the park's married managers who hire James on the spot. They make a hilarious comedic turn, especially Hader, whose character is dimwitted but doesn't have any problem scolding somebody for not depositing trash in the clown's mouth or scaring off a crazed guest with a baseball bat. He supplies James with one keyword of advice for when he runs the games: "Nobody ever wins a big ass panda." For the most part, James finds himself sitting back doing absolutely nothing at various game booths listening to "Rock Me, Amadeus" a nauseating number of times on repeat. A visit from the park's mechanic, Connell (Ryan Reynolds), acts as a breath of fresh air even if his cool guy, rock star attitude is hiding not only his wedding ring but some unseen vulnerability, as well.

Em (Kristen Stewart) captures the attention of James and they start to get to know each other and begin dating, kind of. The movie primarily focuses on this developing relationship between the two of them, and, as conventional as that may sound, Mottola captures this essence of teenage love in the most fresh and honest way possible. The way their relationship unfolds is wonderfully intelligent as these two characters turn out to be a whole lot smarter than people may give them credit. They're both flawed and are good at hiding what bothers them most. Em has a whole slew of family issues back home along with another secret she's hiding, and James is a little too sincere and has an overreaching desperation that is both a flaw and a winning feature. What makes their connection all the better is the top notch acting from Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. Last seen in "Twilight," Stewart has a sharp-edged, pale beauty to her look. She does much deeper work here than her previous outings and proves to be a promising young actress. Eisenberg proved himself in "The Squid and the Whale," and plays James with a fittingly slumped and awkward demeanor.

This is a surprisingly quiet movie, one that is more charming and touching as it goes along. It's also full of beautiful compositions with the orange glaze of lights from the amusement park rides drifting in and out of the scenes. There are details in not only recapturing the 80s but also in capturing the feelings and moods of being stuck in the strange limbo between school and the real world. The amusement park Adventureland not only works as the movie's title but also as a greater irony. There is zero adventure to be had at this Adventureland as most of the workers are rarely ever seen genuinely happy to be there, and similarly, what's meant to be the most adventurous part of life just coming out of college turns out to be just the opposite for these characters. The movie presents not only the absurdity of frying up stale corn dogs for resale but also the absurdity in all of its characters' situations through realistic dialogue that is clever but not too clever (à la "Juno"). These carnival workers hold a common ground in a collective stash of joints and in simply passing the time by hanging around waiting for something to happen. And likewise, there's an uncertainty between Em and James in figuring out whether they're a summer fling or something more. "Adventureland" brilliantly presents insolubility through a summer of longing and desire.

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