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Review: "Adventureland" (Mottola, USA)

Above: Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg take a break at Adventureland.
I thought of the new wave of Taiwanese films that began in the 1980s and peaked around the time of Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Puppetmaster in 1993 while watching Greg Mottola's new movie, Adventureland. Due to forces of cultural history and generational maturity whose causes are beyond me, contemporary American cinema of a certain category—usually alt-mainstream comedies, youthfully made independent films, and sometimes straight-up genre pieces—are suffuse with a nostalgia for a bygone decade (in this case, the 80s) that I haven't seen with such regularity since Taiwanese cinema started looking at their history around the time that their epoch under martial law drew to a close.
The prompt for a film like Adventureland, which is arbitrarily set in 1987, is not quite as invigorating or direct, and is, if anything, a hindrance. Both Adventureland and Mottola's previous movie, the excellent Superbad, are indeed couched in a nostalgia that for some reason now seems requisite in late-teen/early-20s romantic comedies, where a focus on losing virginity, lackadaisical friendships transitioning from comfortable childhood to awkward maturity, and the general limbo of life-before-careers can no longer be looked straight in the eye and instead has to be passed off in some manner of irony, nostalgia, or pastiche, more a wistful hey remember this? than a more direct this is it. But let me stop a moment to say that Adventureland, like Superbad before it, is excellent cinema; it is only that Mottola, like many American filmmakers working now, has no real need for couching a placid, knowing touch of humor, a comfortable, understanding attitude towards his main characters, and a rich, subtle undercurrent of emotional depth in anything that needs to remove his films from the present.
Adventureland, despite its arbitrary time-warp, looks down its nostalgic gun-sites and nails its specific target—a boy and a girl. Jesse Eisenberg plays a college graduate currently too poor to jump immediately to the big city and to grad school, so he sojourns in a summer job at a Pittsburg amusement park and falls for another young stuck-nowhere, played by Kristen Stewart. Born clearly from the remembrance of some summer love in the 1980s, the two actors, with the help of Mottala, flip the film’s hazy nostalgic air into a hazy apathetic air prime for accidental emotional splendor (though of a notably stoned excitability). The two are nothing but terrific, separate and together: Eisenberg has a contemplative gawkiness that seems to keep his hangdog affect and all-elbows physique in check by a removed, dulled thoughtfulness about what's going on around him, and Stewart likewise isn't just the girl he’s always been waiting for but herself seems already tired with the film world and its population of deadbeat, hypocritical parents and caricatured secondaries on the sidelines. Both characters have clearly lived and thought before the film began.
The principal problem with Adventureland is that it is a movie made in short focus, where the center of attention, Eisenberg and Stewart's aimless attempt to find something worthwhile in their lives outside of work, career and friends, is has the slugglishly brilliant sense of sunlight gradually making its way through a stormcloud, but everything on the sidelines, from the amusement park setting to the parents and co-workers that fill out the cast, are pathetically characterized. Such triteness as Stewart's bald step-mother, Eisenberg's alcoholic father, and SNL cast members Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as Adventureland's managers are working on levels of unkind, simplistic cartoons that do not do justice to the level of profundity Mottola and his two lead's express just through the ebb and flow of acquiescent boredom and repressed passion in Eisenberg and Steward's eyes.
The sidelines of Adventureland function like the nostalgia which inexplicably frames the plot; they serve as distancing effects that rather than work inside the movie as a fight with the central, sincere plot line, as if the silliness of co-workers, the frivolity of friends, the bitter selfishness of parents were things that softer hearts had to constantly fight against to find real human connections, rather than this they are blunt tactics that work outside the movie to offset the fact we may actually take the two humans at the center of Adventureland seriously: don't you see how terrible everyone else is? Well yes, we do, because it is so obvious in the face of the subtlety of Stewart and Eisenberg, and how heartfelt the two are. It is like half the movie is made with a wisdom that either the other half hasn't grown to reach yet, or, even worse, its wisdom only exists under the caveat that we can't see the hot-blooded creations of Motolla, Eisenberg, and Stewart without them going hand-in-hand with lesser creations. Not all filmmakers can be Renoir, of course, but those who can't, or haven't yet, should at least know what to leave out of their films, what to temper to leave their strengths and their maturity standing strong. Because when you reach a sequence like the one two-thirds the way through Adventureland, when the subdued drama of the story has aggregated to the point where the sleepy-eyed and apathetic Stewart begins to go through what looks like a combination of nervous breakdown and detox jitters, we see that Mottola and his two performers are able to not only push beyond the chaff of Adventureland's script but push beyond the confines of the film's own tone (cozy in a melancholy way, a kind of stoner tone) and genre (the summer-between romantic comedy) to reach a transcendental drama that all this film's excellence, and that of Superbad, point towards. And that is a comedy so human it is tragic.
I’m not sure why the decision to set the film in 1987, when the director would have been a rough contemporary of the characters onscreen, seems arbitrary; surely that personal, quasi-autobiographical linkage is enough? I was struck by the way in which the characters in Superbad often seem nostalgic for something before it is even over: they’re desperately trying to capture memories in amber even as the events are playing out.
I was struck by the way in which the characters in Superbad often seem nostalgic for something before it is even over Spot on Gareth! Yes, I too assume that the film is semi-autobiographical but the time setting had no purpose in the film. And as you point out, Superbad had a similar tone and was set in the present…I just wonder why the setting is necessary…
Very perceptive write-up, and I’m glad you bring up the film’s cinematic qualities. For something that’s been largely advertised as crotch-punching, boner-and-weed raunch, it’s got some impressionistic moments (the half-wasted drive under the bridge set to “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Unsatisfied” played as rain is seen through a bus window) that have been dancing in my head since I saw it last weekend.
Right on Fernando, the use of “Pale Blue Eyes” was terrific. Still, this whole genre of movies lately has been unusually televisual in the uninteresting sense. I’d like to see someone talk about them formally; or, better still, someone make a film like this that is simply more audaciously styled cinematically.
Amen, Danny. I’ve been waiting for THAT film for ages now. I think Mottola is slowly pushing himself there, and might be our best hope.
I enjoyed the first 90% of this film. I did not find it to be spectacular, but at least entertaining (despite the awkward shifts in tone). However, I found that the ending ruined everything that had preceded it. Someone please correct me if I missed something: but was this not an incredibly sexist conclusion? Em is completely chastised by James (and the film) for her past relationship with Mike. In the end James does not apologise, but rather he forgives her for having “screwed up”. He makes some comment about being able to look past it all, and they make up. Happy ending! …basically Em is made to shoulder the blame for the demise of her and James’ relationship. It is somehow her fault that James could not come to terms with character flaws in her past (that she had even corrected when the whole thing blew up!)

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