Meekin On Movies #2

Movie: AdventureLand
So I’d be lying if there wasn’t some subconscious urge that drove me to see Adventureland again. From just moving back home after College, to visiting my local theme park Canobie Lake Park in Salem New Hampshire, to recently having one of those unrequited romances that never end the way they do in the movies, something inside me, my soul, my brain, my love of Jesse Eisenberg’s Jew-Fro, or whatever, drove me to seek out and watch Adventureland again.
woops.  
I had previously seen the flick at the height of my college optimism. I was producing my own TV show, going places and doing things, and was a hopeless romantic madly in love with someone I was certain to never have. I found myself taken with the romance and setting, but to be honest I didn’t pay all that much attention to it the first time around.
However, after moving back home and having student loans and The Amazing Spider-Man tear away what few shreds of innocence I had left, I felt it was time to revisit Greg Mottola’s Adventureland in a more objective light.
A bit of background: Adventureland was largely marketed as a thematic follow-up to Superbad. The trailer was raunchy and ribald, and really seemed to make the movie appear like a feel-good coming of age comedy. Despite this, the movie underperformed at the box office, only taking in roughly sixteen million dollars during its entire theatrical run, not exactly Superbad money.
Anyway, Adventureland is set in 1987 as James (Jesse Eisenberg) graduates from college, is forced to move back home, and gets a job working at a local amusement park. There he meets a colorful cast of characters including the owners Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), Pipe smoking Joel (Martin Starr), and the slouchy and largely boring Em (Kristen Stewart). Also in the mix is the attractive Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), and Ryan Reynolds as the douchebag we’ve all met before, Mike, the carnival’s mechanic. Eventually James falls for Emma and they embark on a tumultuous romance that is made more difficult by Mike, who is currently sleeping with Em. And Em just can’t say no to him, because, uh, well, he’s Ryan Reynolds and junk, or something.
If you’re confused about names and actors, that’s okay, as thankfully, since everyone is largely two-dimensional, characters are coded by appearance. Jesse with the Jew-Fro, Mike with the Guitar, Joel with the long hair, Lisa P with a perm and bubble gum, and Bill Hader with a manly, manly, mustache.  
On paper, the plot itself is fine. Nerdy Jesse Eisenberg likes damaged-but-beautiful Kristen Stewart, they make out, they have a falling out, then get back together to live happily ever after. You could list off a dozen movies with similar plots involving nerdy love, including Mottola’s own, far sweeter, Superbad. What’s important to making this sort of plot believable is characterization, tone, setting, and most importantly, entertainment value of the proceedings. Astonishingly, Adventureland manages to misfire on all of them. First, characterization is way off. Jesse Eisenberg’s James is portrayed as a male Betty-sue. At the beginning of the film, a point is made to illustrate he’s a virgin. Typically this would signify the character is a dork, or shy, or at the very least not very good with the ladies. But instead, he’s smart, witty, majored in comparative literature, and manages to have two beautiful women throw themselves at him throughout the course of the movie.
Maybe it was mis-casting, but I do not, for a second, buy Jesse Eisenberg as the kind of confident, smug, smarter than everyone else in the room sort of character, who’s also apt to make a move on someone like Kristen Stewart after a somber car-ride where they listen to some real deep 80’s tracks. Why is he a virgin again?
By and large Kristen Stewart exists to be, well, Kristen Stewart. Her trademark slouch and disaffected stare are here in full-force, and she continues to strike me as the kind of girl they sing about in Everclear songs. She too is smart, but also has to contend with her parents, specifically her step-mom who, as Em puts it “Is a status obsessed witch” (which is an actual line from the movie, not one I took from Degrassi).
A point is made to show that everyone important is smart. Everyone. At one point Kristen Stewart goes all ape-s--- on some chick that rejects long-haired Joel for being Jewish. She tears into this girl by asking if she “supports apartheid” and hates gay people, too. This being 1987 and in the middle of Aids epidemic notwithstanding, this is another moment in the film that shows characters are too smart for their own good, and too perfect to be rooted for. Another example is that long-haired, pipe-smoking Joel, who majored in Russian Literature and Slavic Languages. Why I don’t know. At one point there’s a big discussion about the metaphor of Moby Dick between him and James, and it feels like a giant “we are smarter than you” moment.
This is magnified by the fact that any and all characters that aren’t “smart” are cartoons. Lisa P serves her purpose as a sex object and gateway to 80’s music and style. James’ former best friend, Tommy, goes around being an asshole and whacking everybody in the nuts, and Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s roles are largely that of bumpkin-esque comic relief. Due to this, the movie seems to inadvertently convey this concept that if you’re not all high-minded about literature and miserable about the world, you’re an idiot or an asshole.
The second oopsie is in the way the plot of the movie was handled given the expected tone and setting of the source material. By and large a theme park is a romantic place. There are lights and colors and rides and little nooks and crannies for folks to hang out in and do whatever naughty business they see fit. I think probably everyone has made out with a girl/boy at the top of a Ferris wheel, or held a girl / boy’s  hand as you went over the first big hill of a roller coaster (Toby Keith’s best song is about this very thing!). It would take a real special kind of magic mushroom to make this setting seem dull and uninteresting.
Outside of one sequence toward the end of the movie where a couple of characters are hopped up on goofballs, pretty much everything that occurs in this movie happens in the most boring way possible. Characters sitting and talking. Characters walking and talking. Characters driving and talking. Characters standing and talking to a sitting character. And on, and on, and on, and on. Nothing in this movie seems fun and exciting. And what’s worse, I think that was the point. Maybe it’s because it was shot in the middle of January and everyone was cold and annoyed. Who knows?
If I had to venture a guess, Adventureland is a largely autobiographical story, probably about how Mr. Mottola saw himself at that age, and is either something that happened to him, or something that almost happened to him, and he changed the real life ending to give himself the girl he never got IRL. Another good example of this sort of filmmaking would be The Art Of Getting By which really comes off as porno for the pseudo intellectual. When you see something like this, it typically means the Director has taken a right turn down Self-indulgence Boulevard. Mottola probably hated working in that theme park, but like any good writer kept banking ideas for that screenplay he’d write one day about how boring and awful and miserable it really is. It felt like Mottola’s goal in this film was to make a theme park appear boring and monotonous. Which he achieves expertly. Good for him, bad for audiences.
This monotony of the theme park permeates the entire tone of the film. The romance between James and Em is matter-of-fact, and grounded in a sort of droll mutual attraction that we never really quite figure out because it’s just assumed from the trailers and posters they’d fall in love. Question: What’s the more romantic scene?
This one from Sam Rami’s Spider-man
Or this one from Adventureland
Keep in mind that Spider-man had to also be an action movie, whereas Adventureland was focused solely on the romantic entanglements of its protagonists. And, again, I think this was the express point of the movie. To create a romantic comedy with somber romance and comedy that comes from characters humiliating themselves. To quote Homer Simpson “Just because I don’t care, doesn’t mean I don’t understand.”
what I don’t understand, however, is why everyone needs to be dark and miserable in what could be a largely exciting setting. I understand the urge to avoid being hokey and nostalgic for the time, but that’s what audiences are going to expect from a movie set in a f------ theme park! Do you think a single person went to this movie hoping and praying someone would *finally* take the piss out of theme parks? Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock did the exact same thing, taking the magic out of the event, when audiences went to the theater specifically to experience the magic of Woodstock.
This would all be okay if the movie actually had the balls to have an ending that fits with reality established by the film. Which it does not. The movie spends the majority of time making everyone miserable and understated, and it just screams out for one of those endings like in About Schmidt or Up In The Air or Chasing Amy where our protagonist doesn’t get what they wanted, but learns a greater life lesson (like maybe how to smile?). But instead James and Em magically rendezvous in New York and appear to live contently ever after, thus making this entire ego driven exercise a fairytale.  If you were the kind of guy Jesse Eisenberg is in this movie – sheepish, smart, neurotic, and smug, and followed the girl of your dreams to New York City, you would be greeted with a restraining order.
Ultimately this movie is so bland it’s practically a flat line. The entertainment value is practically non-existent. It’s literally the anti-summer-romance movie not a single person has been clamoring for. But again, this was probably the point of the movie. Greg Mottola isn’t a bad director, and his work on The Newsroom and Arrested Development was pretty excellent. Just the entire thing seems like an exercise in righting the wrongs of his youth, or something. 
This movie is a smart person movie. If you’re someone who slogged through a shift at wal-mart one summer, turning your nose up at everyone that came through, hating the people, the work, and location, this could be a movie for you.
(Also I just had a horrible vision of the reboot of Spider-man with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in the Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone roles and I almost puked – this was probably closer to happening then we think).
—Interlude—
Confession Time:
My initial plan for this week was to attempt to review both Adventureland, then do a retrospective on Rollercoaster Tycoon (which is a classic). However, with Adventureland pissing me off to such a great degree that the very thought of a rollercoaster had me considering wrist-slitting, I decided to write about something Adventureland was greatly lacking: Humanity.
Plug Time:
My Blog
My Facebook Fan Page
My Tweeter
Is Wrestling’s closest “real” sport comparison Figure Skating? Yup.
Game: The Best Feature of Grand Theft Auto IV.
This is the best feature of Grand Theft Auto IV
(For those of you who are reading this at work, that’s a video of several of the drunken dialogs you can have in the game with various secondary characters. They are all thoroughly entertaining and absolutely worth playing the game again to experience.)
I know, I know. Sprawling world, lots of guns, fast cars, eastern European war criminals, the ability to go virtual bowling on a whim, and I’m here to tell you the best feature of Grand Theft Auto IV is the ability to get hammered with virtual friends. But it is. Part of the challenge in creating a “living, breathing, world” (Rockstar’s Trademark) was making you care about the people in the game. GTA IV did this by writing some of the most human dialog in videogame history.
The folks at Rockstar had always succeeded in writing memorable characters, in fact we could all do a little thought experiment right now, endeavoring to picture in our mind’s eye the protagonists of the three PS2 GTA games. In an instant a color palette springs to mind for each. The black and grays of GTA III, the neon blues and purples of Vice City, and the sun bleached sands and greens of San Andreas’ ghetto.
In fact putting Tommy Vercetti in an hawaiian shirt was probably the key to making Vice City one of the most visually iconic games of the PS2 era.
But these characters were ultimately B-movie anti-heroes. While the characters and visuals are seared into our memories like that time you’re not allowed to talk about, the plots of these games are, much like Jr. Prom night, largely forgettable. And that’s perfectly fine. Often times the plot of an action movie doesn’t matter much.
Example from a movie:
The Avengers was a quintessential summer blockbuster. It’s high on melodrama, humor, exciting visuals, sharp dialog and pretty ladies. it’s also careful not to smell it’s own farts. It’s on the border of tongue-in-cheek, content to throw in fan service in appropriate places, and really did feel like a 1960’s comic book brought to life in the modern era.
The plot is nearly negligible. If we play the same “close your eyes” game from above and think about The Avengers, does anything about an interdimensional portal or scenes involving Loki strategizing really spring to mind? Of course not, and it’s perfectly fine.
It’s a lot like that scene in Almost Famous where Lester Bangs tells William Miller that The Band were poets because they had the courage to be drunken idiots. The Avengers had the courage to be a dumb action movie, committing to entertaining audiences by being just this side of winking at the camera, and comes out better then any of the three big comic book movies this summer for it.
By and large, the plots in the first GTA games were largely unimportant to the style and grandeur of the proceedings. The homages to other movies and pop culture were obvious and intentional, and that was okay and exciting in the same way “Ted” and “Family Guy” are largely reliant on your ability to be a pop-culture sponges and get every reference, and Avengers was largely predicated on the “Awesome” factor.
However, with Grand Theft Auto IV the folks at Rockstar decided to attempt a real drama. The Great American Tragedy so to speak. Not content to produce pulpy games, Rockstar invented a new physics engine, pushed consoles to the bring in terms of graphical fidelity, and attempted to bring a mature and nuanced story to a proudly sophomoric franchise.
Whether or not Grand Theft Auto IV succeeded in this is up for debate. I think it should get credit for being the first game in my opinion to truly present the kind of interactive experience only console games can provide. Specifically when it comes to characterization. Hours of dialog were recorded between Roman, Packie, Malorie, Florian, and others for the express purpose of exploring their personalities, wants, needs, and dreams. And you discover it all when characters annoyingly call you up to go bowling or go see a show.
The dialog between Niko and whatever cohort you’re taking out for a night on the town is fun, insightful, entertaining, and most importantly, human. Packie talks like a mick from Boston who found his way to NYC. Roman is a lovable and annoying cousin who is grateful you’re there, but sort of annoyed at the great amount of chaos your presence has caused in his life. Formerly incarcerated Dwayne talks openly about life in Prison and how horrible it was. Heck, even the random women you date can provide some insight into Niko’s character and the way he related to women and humanity.
The conversations had in the car rides to and from various friend activities is a feature of GTAIV that is sadly under appreciated. these moments are when you get inside of the characters heads, and it truly allows you immerse yourself in the great GTA fiction.
If, of course, that’s what you’re there for.
Some people play these games to go on ridiculous sprees, driving around crashing into things, and that’s perfectly acceptable. In that case, getting a phone call from cousin Roman every couple of in-game hours can be annoying and distracting to the overall experience. Then again the game does let you shut off calls like this in the phone menu. Of all the things in GTAIV to complain about, this is the one most often mocked by gaming journalists and fans of the game. Claiming it to be annoying or not in the spirit of the franchise.
But as gaming progresses from its roots of geometric outlines shooting other geometric outlines to the current generation of heavily armored soldiers shooting other heavily armored soldiers, for this platform to become an artform, folks are going to have to get used to being annoyed, disliking characters, or having responsibilities in-game that add to the ultimate experience, but may not be as entertaining. The point of having these relationships in GTAIV is to make you feel like a part of this world, and yeah, I think, to dissuade you from enjoying the game strictly as Homicidal Mania: The Game.
Personally, I like it that way.
10 thoughts about stuff:
1. I love the scene in The Shawshank Redemption when The Warden takes innocent inmate Andy Dufresne’s bible during a cell shakedown and hands it back, saying “Salvation lies within”. And then, literally, it did. I of course refer to the scene toward the end of the movie when the warden opens the bible and finds that Andy had hidden his rock hammer (and salvation) *in* the Holy Bible the warden had in his hands.
2. Speaking of The Shawshank Redemption, this video by Famous Last Nerds is quite possibly the greatest thing on the internet: Shawshank In A Minute
3. I know Mick Foley made a point in his book about how he never smoked pot or even drank a lot, but there was something cooky going on the with guy during Raw1000, or he didn’t want to show up Funkasaurus. Either way, not a fan of the cameo from my favorite wrestler of all time.
4. Does anyone here play “The Price is Right” facebook game? It’s incredible.
5. I cannot believe that facebook chain letter about getting Christian Bale to visit kids in Aurora worked. This is surely the high / low point of all memes in the history of the universe. Yes, greater than “Arrow To The Knee” working it’s way into an episode of NCIS.
6. The Rock looks like George Takei.
7. Undertaker looks like Mike from Breaking Bad
8. Back to Shawshank for a second, the novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” in Stephen King’s Different Seasons is an incredibly fun read in its own right, and is included in the Anthology that includes Apt Pupil (made into a movie by Bryan Singer of all people) and The Body (which later went on to be “Stand By Me”).
9.  I think everything on the internet should be more like this: Batman: the Dark Knights best and worst animation edition
and this: Difficulty with Duality: The Batman films of Tim Burton & Joel Shumacher
and this: Red Letter Media’s Star Wars Reviews
(Seriously, I spent 4 years in film school, 6 months working with Roger Ebert, and somehow The Red Letter Media reviews of Star Wars / Star Trek  stuck with me more than either of those things from a film criticism perspective)
10. Three Netflix picks:
1. Parenthood – A great, warm, fun, TV series from the guy who was pretty much responsible for making the last 2 seasons of “Friday Night Lights” watchable. Dax Shepard steals the show.
2. Breaking Bad – An excellent rollercoaster ride. There are no bad episodes. Bryan Cranston owns every scene he’s in, and once lovable criminal lawyer Saul Goodman makes his way into the mix, you’re watching what is quite possibly the most wall-to-wall entertaining TV show on air right now.
3. Stone Cold Steve Austin: The Bottom Line on the Most Popular Superstar of All Time – Probably the best in house wrestling documentary WWE has ever produced, the two and a half hour documentary is eye opening and exciting to watch for fans of wrestling who “came of age” during the attitude era and feel like getting their nostalgia on. For all intents and purposes it seems that Stone Cold is a pretty down to earth fellah who happened into the biggest phenomenon in pro wrestling history. Believe it or not my favorite part of the documentary is the discussion of Stone Cold’s ill-fated heel turn. “Well, I thought it could work”.
Anyone else notice how every single one of these documentaries end with the requisite “movie career” plug? Big Show, Orton, Rock, Edge, and Stone Cold’s DVDs all end the same way.
The Rock is the exception here, since that entire DVD is essentially a big circle jerk about the fact that the WWE actually produced a real, honest-to-goodness, B list movie star.
Next Time:
Seth McFarlane, Family Guy, and how Ted is somehow the most heartwarming movie of the year. 
Plus: The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition. The best Polish J-RPG of all time.