I love Richard Linklater’s “Dazed & Confused.” Yes, I think it’s funny and well-written and well-performed and I love the soundtrack and the sense of time and place… but what makes the film a classic for me is the way it’s not about a story at all, but is instead about an experience.
I know I had that night in high school. That first night where I got caught up with friends and with possibilities and when I got totally lost, adrift in the night, not caring at all about curfew or consequence. I think most people have a night like that, or many nights like that, and I think they’re an essential part of the transition from childhood to adulthood, a milestone in adolescence. I thought Linklater and his huge ensemble cast perfectly captured that night, that feeling, a time and place. And because of that very special, distinct approach, “Dazed and Confused” almost feels like a real memory, and not just a movie.
Greg Mottola’s heartfelt and pitch-perfect new film “Adventureland” hits me the exact same way, and from the moment it got overshadowed at Sundance by the much showier Fox Searchlight rom-com “500 Days Of Summer,” I’ve felt protective of this film, taking any negative comment on it almost personally. If “Dazed” is the movie about that first night of freedom, then “Adventureland” is the movie about that first summer job. And thanks to the talented ensemble cast and Mottola’s deft touch with tone, this isn’t just some teen comedy aiming at the easy set piece or the gross-out gag. It’s a sincere look back at that moment when you first enter the workforce, and suddenly you find yourself with a whole new social group, a whole new set of dynamics to negotiate, access to things you’ve never had access to.
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Even the set-up to the film takes its own way to get to the set-up, avoiding easy genre conventions. Jesse Eisenberg stars as James Brennan, a recent college graduate planning for grad school in New York with a friend in the fall. His planned graduation gift was a trip to Euriope with his friend, but when he arrives home, he learns from his parents that the family has taken a financial hit, and they’re not going to be able to afford the trip. Even worse, no grad school. James goes into free fall, and he finds himself scrambling to get a job that can help him save for his move to New York. He’s determined he’s going to still go, even if his parents won’t help. But with no work experience at all, and with an English major under his belt, he’s essentially unemployable. The only job he can find is at Adventureland, a fairly low-rent local amusement park run by Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), a sweet, eccentric couple. He ends up making new friends and having some hard experiences over the course of the summer, leading him to make some big choices about his life by the time fall rolls around.
Easy enough, right? Mottola’s real gift as a writer is that he manages to set up all the drama he needs to without resorting to making anyone into a ridiculous villain. One of the reasons I loathe most movies that are labeled “romantic comedies” is because I don’t find them romantic or funny. They’re so often driven by characters making despicable choices, lying to each other for no good reason, acting in ways that needlessly complicate things. It’s not human behavior, it’s plot mechanics, and it’s offensive to me. How many rom-coms have you seen that wouldn’t exist if the two lead characters just told each other the truth? And how many of them depend on The Douchebag Boyfriend who ends up threatening someone’s life or doing something positively criminal in the pursuit of “love”? Well, Mottola doesn’t seem interested in that sort of thing. Here, there are characters who seem like antagonists or easy stereotypes when they first appear, but the longer we spend with them, the more we realize that the surface is just the surface, and that all of these people have more going on than they admit at first.
He becomes good friends with Joel (the great Martin Starr), and the slow reveals that the film offers regarding Joel’s home life are doled out with precision and to excellent effect. I was friends with a couple of guys like Joel in high school, and they were enigmas, intentionally so. And the girl that James likes is Em, played by “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart. I don’t think she’s got to worry about “Twilight” defining her whole career… she’s already proven herself capable of making smart choices and doing good work in interesting films. Her brief role in “Into The Wild,” for example, or this work, where she plays Em as a bruised girl who can’t articulate the rage she feels towards her father and her stepmother, and so she’s acting out, pushing people away with this act of hers, and indulging in some seriously self-loathing liasons with Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s handyman. Stewart isn’t a great actress yet, but there’s a quality about her that I find affecting, a sort of contradictory flinty fragility, like she’s easily broken but also quick to temper. And she’s guarded, making those few moments where she relaxes and lights up something special. It’s like seeing the sun between the clouds for just a moment. I think the more comfortable she gets as an actress, the more interesting she’ll be, but I’m encouraged by a performance like this one. And the same is true of Reynolds, who makes an awful lot of garbage. He’s obviously a guy who can be incredibly effective with the right material, so why doesn’t more of it end up in his hands? It seems to me like he’s still one of the most underutilized assets in movies right now, and hats off to Mottola for making the most of that weird sort of creepy charisma Reynolds has. Mike’s a guy who talks a good game, a guitar player who has a rich history of gigs with guys like Lou Reed. That history may be completely imagined, but that doesn’t matter to the little girls who see Mike’s backstory as all the incentive they need to bang this married guy who is essentially just a janitor at a fading fun park. They can imagine him as a rock star for a few minutes, and he can hold on to that last little bit of youth. It’s a sad arrangement, and Em seems like a girl who would be too smart for Mike’s act, but just damaged enough to let herself fall for it anyway.
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig offer really sweet support to the film, and there’s such a suggestion of history in the way they play their scenes together that I found myself almost wishing for a movie just about them and their struggles to keep the park afloat. We understand that they met while working at the park, and buying it together and running it is something that is an essential part of their marriage and their attraction to one another. Hader’s acting through a giant soup-catcher, and most actors would get eaten alive by a moustache like that. Not Hader, though. He manages to bring that same gentle eccentricity to the character that he brings to each role he approaches. He likes the little quirks and tics and oddities that define these people he plays, and I appreciate that as a comic approach instead of just broad caricature. The same is true of Wiig, which may be why they play so well off of each other.
And I want to offer special praise to the work of Margarita Levieva, who I first noticed in David Goyer’s “The Invisible.” It’s hard to believe the sad-eyed tomboy in that movie is the virgin bombshell named Lisa P in this film, but it’s true. And Levieva is the real deal, an actor of uncommon perception and the ability to vanish into roles. She never looks the same twice, and she never plays two roles alike. She’s not interested in being a movie star… she’s character, all the way. Lisa P is gorgeous in that ’80s big-hair “Flashdance” way, a girl who knows exactly what effect she has on guys, but who’s not prepared to do anything about it. And every choice Mottola makes about the character as a writer is amplified by the way Levieva plays her. There’s a date between James and Lisa P that is one of my favorite scenes in anything I’ve seen this year. Sad and sweet and funny and oh-so-goddamn-real.
Mottola’s soundtrack is dense and well-chosen, and I think it’s safe to say that he now officially owns Judas Priest’s “Breakin’ The Law.” He uses 1987 as a setting without being obnoxious about it, a pet peeve of mine especially in ’80s films, where the urge to go camp is almost impossible for production designers to avoid. And for anyone who grew up near Kennywood, the Pittsburgh amusement park, you’re pretty much guaranteed a nostalgia rush as strong as an acid trip while you watch this film. My writing partner Scott Swan grew up near Kennywood, and I’ve heard him tell stories about his childhood at that park for twenty years now. I can’t wait for him to see this film, because I guarantee it’s going to hit him hard. And I’m willing to bet that anyone who ever worked a job they hated during a summer they cherish is going to feel the same way about “Adventureland.” I certainly do.
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