Thursday, April 9, 2009

"Adventureland" (2009, Greg Mottola)

As for now (the casting decisions in this country being so persistent as they are), I cannot imagine a movie starring Jesse Eisenberg that would explore themes of tranquility and peace. Any yarn of giddiness, neurosis and immaturity, though, can use him to a great effect.

Eisenberg plays James, a kid whose parents begin to make much less money that they used to, so he has to take a job at a Pittsburgh amusement park. His reluctance would make CAROUSEL’s Billy Bigelow cringe, because he’s not his idea of an ideal son (“He can (…) maybe bark for a carousel. / Of Course, it takes talent to do that well”). We follow James’ plights: financial, emotional and sexual. At the park, he meets two girls, one something of a eye-candy, other something of a vodka shot. It’s the other he falls in love with, and we don’t blame him. She’s played by Kristen Stewart, and she does an amazing job of depicting a face which has just been won over by derision, but can be still reclaimed by joy. And it’s the latter task that James has to perform in the course of the film.

The year is 1987, the colors are all chocolate-bar wrapping and cotton candy. Mottola has a soft spot for abstract opening sequences, which he showed in SUPERBAD already – here, the blurry neons distorted by raindrops steal the show twice in the course of the film, like a visual semi-colon (think PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE). And even the theme is similar to SUPERBAD – again, it’s all about the urge to lose virginity, but not just for the sake of losing it. Mottola’s characters differ from the AMERICAN PIE crowd in one crucial detail: by having their first intercourse, they want to *win* something worthwhile, not just *lose* something embarrassing. As James says to Em, “I want to owe you things”.

Sex in SUPERBAD was an uncharted territory, familiarized only partially by the excessive dirty chatter. Here, all dirty talk is out. Language doesn’t make things easier for the characters, their anxiety is too great for that. “Do you believe in God?”, the sexy girl asks James at one point, to which he says: “I believe in love”. The power of the scene is in Eisenberg’s performance: he’s embarrassed at making such a banal statement, but he would be more embarrassed by not speaking his mind.

The movie makes two contradictory promises, which is unfortunate, because every time it keeps one, it betrays the other. With the introduction of Bill Hader’s park supervisor, Mottola roams into seemingly safe territory he commanded so well in SUPERBAD: that of comedy simultaneously goofy and deadpan (Hader’s character here varies only slightly from the one he played in SUPERBAD). This time, however, the tone rings false. Hader’s appearances are routines, they don’t belong to the tone of the better half of the film. As with most routines, the only thing you can do is *evaluate* them, and judge which worked and which didn’t.

Mottola made another movie about adulthood. It’s no picnic, according to him, but then, adolescence is not one, either. Mottola’s world is one of struggle, and what I value most about his two movies is that they’re not denying what a great deal of pain is involved in becoming an adult.

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