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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Adventureland (The Ballad of El Goodo)

Mike Connell can’t remember the first time he told his Lou Reed story. What’s even worse is that he can’t even remember at this point how much of it is bullshit. He saw Lou Reed once, he knows that but he’d be hard pressed to recall the exact circumstances. All he knows is that for the past ten years he’s been telling this story about jamming with Lou Reed one night, and for ten years the story has been landing him chicks. Lately though he’s been feeling like he’s wearing down, as he’s starting to realize that a lot of the dreams he had are becoming as false as that story about jamming with Lou Reed that night so many years ago. Perhaps it all stems from Em, the girl he works with at Adventureland that he has been sneaking out with behind his wife’s back for the past year or so. Em’s different from those other girls, she’s becoming more attached and it’s starting to scare Mike who is looking to become more and more dis-attached from the life he has made for himself.

Em, or Emily has her father calls her when he is pissed, has been running on empty since her mom died of cancer two years ago. She’s sleeping with a repairman from Adventureland whose both married and about ten years her senior. He jammed with Lou Reed though, and he’s cuter than most of the guys she knows from school so maybe it’s not all bad. Lately though, Em can’t concentrate and she can’t stop thinking about her mom, although she wouldn’t want any of her friends to know that. Her bitch of a stepmother isn’t helping matters either, and as of late all she wants to do is sit in her room and play her Big Star and Jesus and Mary Chain records. Part of her wants summer to be over so she can return to New York and college, but another part of her is just scared beyond all words…plus she’s met another guy named James at Adventureland that makes her feel things inside that she hasn’t felt since her mom died.

James Brennan doesn’t have any scientific proof of it, but he suspects that he might very well be the world’s biggest fuck up. He’s just managed to graduate college with a degree he’ll never really be able to use and, worse yet, he’s still a virgin. His European Trip graduation gift trip has fallen through as well, cause his dad has just got demoted at work, and now he’s stuck for the summer working at the local amusement park Adventureland. Things could be worse though as he’s got a bag of grass to last the summer, and he’s really getting a kick out of the Henry Miller book that he is so engrossed in. Even better are some of the friends he has made at the park like Connell, the repair guy who jammed with Lou Reed back in the day and especially Em, the coolest girl he has ever met. He suspects that Em is the kind of girl that Alex Chilton wrote “September Gurls” for, and he finds the song playing in his head every time he looks at her.

These are just three characters in Greg Mottola’s lovely, heartfelt and downright stunning Adventureland, the kind of American youth film that only comes along every decade or so. This is just Mottola’s third feature film, after the terrific Daytrippers and very winning Superbad, and with it he confirms himself as one of the major new voices in American cinema. Adventureland is as honest as a worn out groove on a vintage Velvet Underground album, and as exciting as finding a sealed copy of Big Star’s second LP in a record store’s discount bin.
Set in 1987 and mixing humor with real human emotion the way few films can or even dare to, Adventureland is among the most perfect American films of the decade. A daring and ambitious time capsule that lays to waste most films of late that have attempted to center on the frustrations and triumphs that go hand in hand with being young. Working from a pitch perfect script from his own pen, Mottola’s film is the kind of work that I dream about but one that rarely actually manifests itself. From the opening blast of The Replacement’s legendary “Bastards of Young” to the final breathtaking shot of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart that instantly takes its place among the great closing moments in any film in recent memory, Adventureland doesn’t make a wrong turn. It’s warm, funny, touching and contains the kind of devastating emotional honesty that is becoming more and more of a rare commodity these days, in film and life.

Adventureland is a fully loaded production. Working with Mottola’s pitch perfect script is one of the best ensemble casts imaginable. Jesse Eisenberg delivers one of the great performances essaying awkward youth as James and Kristen Stewart is simply magical as Em, the perfect young love who feels like she is on the edge of an emotional breakdown at any moment. Watching Stewart I was reminded of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s turn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and I can’t think of a higher compliment than that. Extremely talented and undervalued Ryan Reynolds delivers a wise, knowing and undeniably sympathetic turn as Connell. The entire supporting cast is also incredible, with everyone managing to make even the smallest characters fully realized three-dimensional people.
The behind the scenes crew Mottola has assembled does extremely solid work as well. Anne McCabe’s editing keeps the film moving along at a brisk pace, but it manages to not be cut too tight to spoil the feeling of immobility so many of the characters are feeling. Kudos also to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s wonderful costume designer Melissa Toth, who does a fantastic job of capturing 1987 without turning it into the punch line so many other designers would. Adventureland is an extremely smart and well thought out film, and Mottola has chosen the perfect people to help him realize his unique and ambitious vision.

I was extremely moved by Greg Mottola’s Adventureland. It is one of the first films that I know of that really captures the time when I was a teenager. The eighties are an easy time to make fun of, Mottola’s film reminds us that some of us could already see the ridiculousness in much of it, but we knew there were some sublime little corners to gravitate towards as well. Adventureland travels to both and nails each with perfection and ease. This is the first film I have seen about the period where I can really say, I knew those kids…I was one of those kids.

Adventureland is being advertised as a straight comedy, and I have a feeling there might be some disappointed folks leaving theaters after seeing it. I also suspect that it might take a bit of time for this film to catch on, but trust me it is a classic. Adventureland is a really special film, and it’s the best film of its kind since Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused more than fifteen years ago.
Alex Chilton and Chris Bell wrote a song called "The Ballad of El Goodo" in 1972 for the peerless first Big Star album. The song has played in my head as images from Adventureland replay in my mind, with these lyrics being particularly resonate:

"There's people around who tell you that they know
And places where they send you, and it's easy to go.
They'll zip you up and dress you down and stand you in a row
But you know you don't have to, you can just say "no".

I've been built up and trusted, broke down and busted
But they'll get theirs and we will get ours if you can
Just-a hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on."

Thanks to Greg Mottola for making a film that dares to break away from an increasingly dull and compliant pack. Most of the films you will see this year will lie to you, Adventureland doesn't and for this reason among many others it should be celebrated.


Aaron W. Graham said...

You're right, the trailers trying to sell the film were/are all wrong (it's hardly SUPERBAD). That strain of melancholy is palpable throughout, and I can only sense disappointment for those going in expecting otherwise.

I really need to back back to check out THE DAYTRIPPERS now (my girlfriend said that the tone of that film matches ADVENTURELAND almost too well).

In the original script, it was Neil Young in place of Lou Reed that Connell had jammed with. In that bullshit story, he and Young performed "Cortez the Killer" together - Connell calls it "Corvette the Killer"!

Brandon Colvin said...

I'm glad you felt about it as strongly as I did, Jeremy. The film is an absolute miracle. I'll be shocked if it doesn't end up in my top 5 of the year and I'm definitely going to try and take in a second viewing while it's still in theaters.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Thanks Aaron,
You know it's funny. I have The Daytrippers and have watched it probably a half dozen times since it came out and I hadn't connected that Mottola had directed it. I will correct my post as I stated SuperBad was his first film. I feel silly for making the error as I really, really dig The Daytrippers.
Thanks for the tidbit about Neil Young. I love Neil but I think switching it to Lou was the right move, as Reed has that sinister cool that Young doesn't (not a swipe on Neil at all)...but damn, Corvette The Killer, that's funny stuff.

Awesome Brandon,
So glad you loved it too. Miracle is the right word for it. We both better hurry to catch it in the theater again as it pretty much flopped over the weekend...a shame but I am not surprised. I suspect that in ten years it will be this film and not Fast and Furious that people will be obsessing over.

Cinema Du Meep said...

This was an incredibly moving review.
I am so going to watch this movie, and drag the girlfriend and sister to watch as well. Thank You, jeremy.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Thanks so much C.D.Meep,
I really appreciate the nice words and I hope you all enjoy the film. I wish more people were going to see it but I think the positive word on it will really start to spread. Thanks again.

Keith said...

Hey Jeremy. Great post. I had been wanting to see this. It looks amazing. Glad to see it doesn't disappoint.

Unknown said...

Nice review. If I wasn't already psyched to see this film, your review would have clinched it. As always, very perceptive observations and thoughtful ruminations on why you dug it.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Thanks Keith and Jd for the nice words. I hope you both get to check out the film and enjoy it.

Bob Turnbull said...

That's a great review Jeremy...

I'm not as over the moon for it as you, but I really, really enjoyed it. There's some very real characters here - I particularly like how both Connell and Lisa P would've been stereotypical jerks/bitches in other films, but they are more well rounded people here.

I did wonder how an association with Lou Reed would still be considered "cool" to girls in 1987, but who needs to be picky over little details like that. I do wish Kristen Wiig had more screen time though. Was "September Gurls" actually in the film? I don't remember hearing it.

There's so much to like here...Eisenberg and Stewart are simply perfect as two interesting, complicated, flawed and genuinely good people. Really, really impressed with both those performances. Martin Starr and Ryan Reynolds were also better than I've ever seen them. And Margarita Levieva is just absurdly pretty.

I love the little inserts between scenes of the city or the amusement park - stuff like that adds so much for me. I expect when the DVD comes out, you'll have an entire post dedicated to screencaps just from those parts of the film - at least I hope you do.

And the music. Starting at the back, I had a big goofy grin as "Don't Change" played out the film into the credits. Judas Priest's "Breaking The Law" was inspired. Husker Du in the car! Falco, Shannon and the other 80s dance stuff in the park were spot on choices. "Just Like Heaven" may be a tad obvious, but boy did it marry to that scene well. Even the Poison video was great! Well, in the sense that it fit with the time and place and provided me with a big laugh...B-)

I wanted more story on some of the other characters (especially Starr's Joel), but that's a sign they did a good job of making everyone interesting.

Yeah, I may try to catch this in the theatre again.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Thanks Bob for your detailed comments. They were great to read. One thing you reminded me of that I really liked was the fact that it was Lou Reed Connell was mentioning in 87, as it kind of gave notice that he had probably been telling the story for a good ten years or so. It gives it a kind of sad weight to him as obviously his story is going to become less and less effective on younger people, although he won't realize it. Made the character a bit more pitiful and oddly sympathetic to me.
I also agree how Connell and Lisa's characters both escaped from just being cliched 'bad guys' in the film...I credit this to the writing and the performances by Reynolds and Levieva (who reminded me of Betsy Russell in the mid eighties).
Oh, and "September Gurls" wasn't in the film but with all the Big Star moments it was the song I figured he would associate with least that was the song I did.
Thanks again for the awesome comments!

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks for clearing up the "September Gurls" question...It's my fave Big Star song (along with "The India Song" probably), so I was wondering why I didn't notice it...

Coincidentally, I just saw "The Daytrippers" last week by complete coincidence. I love Hope Davis and thought she was great, but the rest of the film and characters just didn't work for me...Ann Meara became more and more annoying as the film went on (I guess she was supposed to, but she went past my limit) and I didn't think much of Liev Schreiber and Parker Posey's performances. But there ya have it...

James Hansen said...

Completely agree. Sorry I'm late commenting on this. I saw this opening day to a 1/2 full theater in NYC on Friday night. I was shocked the crowd was so small and equally surprised by how much I loved it. I was waiting to comment because I was working on a review that I thought I would write quicker and they always sum up my thoughts more completely. Alas, it took a while, but here it finally is.

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