Sunday, 26 July 2015

From the archive: "Adventureland"

Back to the 80s again. As if listening to La Roux or Little Boots wasn't enough to make us all feel like a 15-year-old circa 1987, along comes Adventureland, almost as a reflex response to the crudeness of its director Greg Mottola's previous Superbad: a gentle, autobiographical coming-of-age comedy centred on a moptopped protagonist who could scarcely be any further removed from Jonah Hill. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is a studious sort, trying to finish reading Quiet Days in Clichy in the weeks between high school and college when he learns the savings set aside for his further education have been wiped out. To scrape some funds together, he takes a job at the titular Pittsburgh amusement park. Though he's obliged to deal with the park's blustering manager (Bill Hader) and knife-wielding customers, it's not all bad: he gets to hang out at will, and develops a crush on one of his colleagues, the reticent Emily (Kristen Stewart) - although she has, in modern parlance, issues.

There's been a rise recently in what I'm tempted to call location (rather than situation) comedies, cultural items made up almost exclusively of the background jokes and telling vignettes their setting provides them with. (The most prominent example was Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which gave rise to the warehouse knockabout of Employee of the Month and TV's Reaper.) Here, Mottola makes workably atmospheric use of a still-standing, real-world funfair, with its rigged games, baffling array of cuddly toys and incessant playing of "Rock Me Amadeus". (The film is particularly adept in its deployment of period-specific music, differentiating between those tunes its teens choose to let into their ears and souls, and those rammed down their throats through repetition; for those who cherish such things, Adventureland makes near-definitive use of Judas Priest and Animotion.)

It's clear from a very early stage, however, that the title is intended to stand for something more: not just a place, but a state of mind. This Adventureland connotes a new frontier, one that combines the thrills and spills of the waltzers and dodgems with the highs and lows of first love. James and Em's courtship is a dreamy, unreal thing: these are heightened emotions re-evaluated through both the mists of time and the steam rising up off the corndog fryer. Trace elements of the Superbad crudeness remain - one character exists chiefly to punch our hero in the crotch and vomit - yet the new film is tender and sincere, inclined less towards blunt laughs than recreating the sensations of having your heart broken and hopes shattered at a formative stage - and the memories of picking up the pieces and trying to get on with one's life.

The performers, accordingly, are allowed the time and space to set down something memorable, rather than simply having to careen wildly between joints and boner jokes. Eisenberg establishes himself as among this generation's foremost young romantics - an American Simon Amstell - flattered by his co-worker's attentions, if not entirely sure as yet what to do with them; removed from the Twilight franchise, Stewart delivers a study in troubled self-possession, although it's unfortunate for her that the big finale should be so dependent on what looks like nothing more than a standard-issue teenage strop. (The intergenerational conflict throughout has the look of a watered-down Ice Storm.) As with this year's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, the older you are, the more chance there is you'll have seen something like it before; if you happen to be among those going back to school in the coming days, on the other hand, it may strike you as one of the truest films ever made on the end of the holidays. Yet truthful - and touching - it is: no mere exercise in retro bandwagon-jumping, but a summer somebody somewhere lived through, once upon a time.

(September 2009)

Adventureland screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.20pm.

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