Mid-20th Century American writers competed on their dust flaps to list the most jobs held. The more proletarian occupations an author enumerated, such as short order cook, hod carrier, or lobsterman, the more legitimate was his assault on the Great American Novel.
Today, however, a generation of the well-educated has grown up assuming “there are jobs Americans just won’t do.” “Adventureland,” a witty, nostalgic love story is set in the summer of 1987, about the time when tuition started being inflated so high by competitive elitism and unskilled wages pounded so low by illegal immigration that “summer job” was increasingly replaced in the upper middle class vocabulary by “unpaid internship.” (By now, a few parents are paying fashionable employers to let their kids make photocopies and fetch coffee.)
A new Oberlin graduate, James Brennan, has his costly Eurail Pass backpack tour canceled by his parents because his alcoholic father’s executive career is wobbling. Suddenly needing a summer job to pay for tuition in the fall at the Columbia Journalism School, he finds that a resume featuring his SAT scores and his Renaissance Studies major doesn’t compensate for his lack of any work experience. Nobody in Greater Pittsburgh, it turns out, needs a fresco restored. He winds up at the employer of last resort, the Adventureland amusement park.
Writer-director Greg Mottola, who helmed 2007’s comedy hit “Superbad,” explains the origin of his quasi-autobiographical film with an ingenuous snobbishness that would have annoyed and amused John Steinbeck. “I was talking with a bunch of writer friends, and I was telling them these embarrassing stories about a summer in the ‘80s that I spent as a carnie working at an amusement park … It was the worst job I’ve ever had… I should have had a good job—I should have been a tutor or gone to Manhattan and been an intern at a magazine or something respectable—but no, I was working for minimum wage, handing out stuffed animals to drunk people.”
Please note that Mottola isn’t, personally, a jerk. Judging from “Adventureland,” he’s an insightful yet gentle observer. That’s just the way people think nowadays.
For Mottola’s alter ego, this dreaded “worst job in the world” laboring in a workplace where many employees lack four-digit SAT scores turns out to be the best summer of James’s life. Played by Jesse Eisenberg as a continuation of his role in 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale” as a romantic but overly verbal intellectual who can’t help blurting out his innermost feelings at awkward moments, James is the first young male in recent movies who isn’t in a particular rush to lose his virginity. He seems to share Freud’s pride in the discreet passion of the bourgeoisie: “Why don’t we fall in love with someone new every month? Because every breakup tears away a piece of our heart.”
James’s goofy charm catches the eye of two beauties working at the park. Em (Kristen Stewart of “Twilight”) is a Jewish NYU student who is avenging herself on her lawyer father for remarrying after her mother’s death by sleeping with the amusement park’s handsome but married electrician (Ryan Reynolds). And Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) is a Catholic working class girl whose religion-dictated virginity enables her to date her many admirers without losing her heart to any.
Mottola, now 44, directed episodes of comedy godfather Judd Apatow’s failed 2001 TV series “Undeclared.” Until Apatow’s 2005 breakthrough with “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” Mottola’s career was idling. (His press kit biography concludes, “He hopes someday to have a better bio.”)
Like so many other underlings of Apatow, such as Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, he’s done well when finally given a chance. The sudden success of Apatow’s boys is reminiscent of the famous cohort of writers who graduated from Eton in 1920-22: George Orwell, Anthony Powell, Henry Green, Cyril Connolly, Harold Acton, and Ian Fleming. Were they that individually talented? Or did it help to know each other?
Without Apatow’s oversight this time, Mottola’s “Adventureland” is notably less vulgar than “Superbad” (which Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote): Mottola’s new movie takes very seriously the dictum that love stories are most romantic before consummation. Granted, it’s also less funny than “Superbad,” but better overall. One caveat: like most indie films today, it’s directed by a writer, so it’s not the visual experience it could have been if it had been entrusted to a 1980s-style music video idiot savant.
Rated R for language, nonstop marijuana use, and sexual references.
August 24, 2009
One of the better movies of 2009, "Adventureland," comes out on DVD on Tuesday. Here's my full review from The American Conservative: