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Thursday, 17 March 2011

Film Review: Adventureland (the most un-metal thing on this site)

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A recent viewing habit of mine is the easy to watch dumb comedy film, the sort of film that requires no thought. Just turn your brain off and enjoy the dumb sex jokes and gross out humour. This habit of course eventually leads me to Judd Apatow, who seems to have written, directed or produced the vast majority of films in this genre. Leading me to believe that he will soon have a “six degrees of dumb comedy films” theory surrounding him. The guy is responsible for the majority of the best of these films to varying degrees, he wrote and directed Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and produced Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Stepbrothers. It is his producing credit on 2007s Superbad that brings me to my point. Superbad is directed by Greg Mottola, also the director of Adventureland. Making Adventureland one degree away from Judd Apatow.

Adventureland was released in 2009, but I discovered it amongst one of my many dumb comedy benders. It seemed to have all the making of another great Superbad like coming of age film, a group of friends sharing a summer together, parties, alcohol and various narcotics. There is talk of virginities being lost and a trip to “sexually permissive cultures”. Main character, James Brennan, is seemingly your typically socially awkward nerd ready to embark on a journey of social and sexual acceptance; he is even played by Jesse Eisenberg who played this exact character ark in another “-land” suffixed film (Zombieland). But prepare to be misled, his trip is cancelled and he is forced to get a summer job to fund his college education due to his Father’s demotion.

From here on the film performs a complete 180 from my expectations and the expectations it laid down in the first 5 minutes. Sure it is still a comedy and sure it still has sex and drugs in it, but prepare for drama and a slower pace than envisaged. This is not the type of film that I thought I was in for and it pretty much flat out lied to me, but I have got to say. I fucking loved it.

The story follows Brennan as he is abandoned by his friends and begrudgingly begins working at theme park Adventureland. He gains a whole new group of friends in his co-workers, including Joel an eccentric Russian literature enthusiast, Em a sweet girl with a troubled home life and Lisa P the girl of every Adventureland employee’s dreams. Romance ensues with Brennan and Em developing a relationship. Em’s characterisation is another of the many reasons that the film took me by surprise, she is played by Kristen Stewart, now everyone has an opinion on Twilight but it is hard to deny that the series hasn’t exactly given anyone confidence in Stewarts acting chops. But her portrayal of a character that is being tugged at by a cavalcade of different emotions, from grief, to love, to self-hatred is fantastic. Further strengthened by it remaining subdued when it could have so easily drifted to melodrama. Despite her problems there is something ultimately appealing and instantly likeable about her. One of the hardest things to present in a comedy film is a believable romance that a viewer can invest in; many exist only as a means of humour. Brennan and Em seem to have a romance that comedy simply occurs around and due to the films atypical nature, the jokes really aren’t all that frequent anyway. The jokes act as a break to the romance as opposed to contrariwise.

Brennan’s apparent social awkwardness is broken down quickly. He seems to want to break free of peoples past interpretations and change for the better. He is strangely confident and honest, asserting and openly discussing his feeling for Em as soon as he is sure of them. It is definitely a coming of age character ark but he takes all of the things often encountered by these characters in his stride, greeting them with enthusiasm and eagerness instead of wide eyed naivety. He constantly complains with his friends about how he hates his current situation, but gives off the impression that he has never been happier. He knows what he wants but presents himself with such an atypical selflessness that he is almost impossible to dislike.

Of course trouble awaits the romance, with Brennan going out with desirable Lisa P, simply because he knows not many people get the opportunity. Em’s relationship with park maintenance man Mike Connell also lays the ground work for trouble. I won’t spoil were every leads but its ending is predictable even if the tone of the film is not.

It is sort of appropriate that I am some 750 words into this before mentioning that this film is set in 1987. The unimportance of this setting to the story is similar to the unimportance my review has showed it hitherto. The story just happens to be set in the 1980s; it simply serves of an example of what day to day life may have been like at this time. It doesn’t mock or use its settings as a basis for humour, yeah there are questionable haircuts and clothes border on flamboyance, but it gives of the impression that this is just what people were like back then. I really enjoy this understated look at the 80s, just the most miniscule things that were part of simple day to day life somehow interests me. Just seeing characters set a needle on a record or place a tape into a cars stereo, just moments like this that make the setting apparent are great moment that fit with the films downplayed but fantastic style. Establishing its setting through the miniscule rather than obvious clichés, such as “HEY LOOK MOTLEY CRUE AND LEGWARMERS!!” is a stroke of refreshing genius.

It even continues straying from the obvious in its soundtrack selection. While it does have to feature the obligatory dated 80s anthems, the offending track being “Rock Me Amadeus”. It generally treats its soundtrack with some form of sincerity, with the dated and cheesy music being used predominantly to illustrate the characters derision for it. It is a great use of a licensed soundtrack featuring music from various years, genres and artists, with great songs from Lou Reed, The Replacements and The Cure.

The film just has a lot of heart. It is mostly about the simple seemingly insignificant moments, moments featuring pot cookies and bumper cars, and a conversation on Herman Melville that is just perfect. It’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s sincere and it will surprise you if you let it.