Remember those smiley face bumper stickers that said ‘Shit Happens’? They were all the rage in the 80s. Banal they may have been, but at least there was a message: ‘Don’t let life get you down, man. Just dust yourself off and keep on trucking – everything will turn out sweet in the end.’ It is this moral that sits at the core of Adventureland, writer/director Greg Mottola’s follow up to 2007’s bombastic teen-comedy Superbad. Shit happens, better get used to it.
Yes, there are parallels between Mottola’s latest film and his last. But if you go into the theatre expecting 90 minutes of wisecracking teenagers shooting from the hip about porn websites, fake I.D.s and trying to get laid, you may just come out disappointed. This is not another generic teen movie. Adventureland is about real life, and all the anticlimaxes and shades of grey that come with it.
Set in 1987, just as Reaganomics were starting to push America into a steady slide towards recession, recent college graduate James Brennan’s dreams of a carefree summer backpacking around Europe with his best buddies are dashed when his father gets a demotion at work.
Instead of getting jiggy with some uninhibited Euro-babes and guzzling steins of lager at Oktoberfest, James (played by the curly haired Simon Ansell-alike Jesse Eisenberg) ends up with a big bag of weed and no other choice but to take a job.
“I’m not even qualified for manual labour!” Eisenberg exclaims after yet another knock back, mirroring thousands of graduates that suddenly find that their degrees in Comparative Literature means very little in the grown-up world of employment.
It seems the only place that will have him is Adventureland, a two-bit amusement park run by Bobby – the always-excellent Bill Hader – and his stooge wife, Paulette. Mottola’s characterisation of the offbeat park manager and his almost sinister forced hilarity is pitch perfect. But Hader is underused, and what could have been a show stopping performance becomes a peripheral sideshow act.
The awkward but ultimately cool James fits right in with the leftfield gallery of Adventureland’s cynical staff. “We are doing the work of pathetic, lazy morons,” the geeky Joel (Martin Starr) laconically proclaims early on. Succinctly summing up the ethos of most minimum wage jobs.
James soon goes on to form close bonds to Kristen Stewart’s troubled Emily and pseudo-mentor Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s maintenance man and wannabe musician, who spends his summers impressing girls into bed with his stories of jamming out with Lou Reed. Both Stewart (of Twilight fame) and Reynolds are excellent – the latter once again proving he’s a far better actor than he’s given credit for – and manage to add real colour to characters who could easily have become corny: Emily is from a broken home, Connell a failing marriage.
These three form the emotional centre of Adventureland. And the more bittersweet moments of the film are at their best in the second act, when focus shifts from the slightly one-note James to the much more intriguing Emily.
However, the film is also very funny in places, with sharp dialogue and some great set pieces (James’ stash comes in very handy). The awkwardness of teenage sexuality is subtlety played. And yes, there are more than a few running gags and boner jokes. But, much like the more humanist elements, Mottola never lays it on too thick, so the comedy is often understated and dry.
Another device Mottola uses to good effect is music. And Adventureland rocks along to a great soundtrack that flits between 80s one-hit-wonders and down tempo indie – Lou Reed is used heavily as a recurring motif. The film successfully captures the essence of some of the era’s more colourful fashion trends, too. Particularly the park’s resident uber-hotty, Lisa P (the gorgeous Margarita Levieva), who wears an eyeball-raping collection of outlandish outfits, including some incredible neon pink leopard print pants.
A great movie then, that deftly handles the angst of late adolescence/early adulthood transition, without ever becoming overly saccharine or preachy. Characters are painted with broad brushstrokes, and there are no ‘they are good or they are bad’ judgemental generalisations that so often dumb down teen comedy dramas to the level of pulp fiction.
The film is by no means perfec,t though. And its scope is perhaps too wide, with the many-stranded threads of character relationships getting muddled in places, only to be quickly re-sewn together later. Mottola has deliberately strived to give each player his or her own voice, causing the clamour to be heard to become disjointed in places – and, in the case of Bill Hader, some almost get lost completely.
This is only minor gripe, and Adventureland is thoroughly enjoyable on the whole, with a tilt towards near-genius in places. Be warned though: this is an entirely different beast to Superbad. And those wanting a rollicking farce for their Friday night giggles may be underwhelmed. But as an acute take on the rigours growing pains, Adventureland is a first class film that never loses sight of its central message. After all, sometimes in life shit does just happen.