Thursday, October 20, 2016

Theory Thursday: "Adventureland" is Underrated

Scene from Adventureland
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Keeping Up with the Joneses opens in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Adventureland is underrated.

There are some weeks that are difficult to write up a Theory Thursday column. This happens to be one of them. I don't have much opinion on Tom Cruise. The horror films don't inspire me in any significant way. So I turn to a third tier release that is probably going to not do well. Keeping Up with the Joneses is a new comedy with a married couple spying on their secret agent neighbors. The cast is pretty strong; featuring the likes of Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot, Isla Fisher, and Zach Galifianakis. This should make for a funny film, but the early reviews haven't been the most encouraging. Even if there's not much that I personally find interesting based on the story, I may see it because of one reason: Greg Mottola.

He is probably not a household name even in comparison to contemporary Paul Feig. Both gained popularity after working with Judd Apatow on TV and in film. Whereas Feig has been more high profile with gigs like Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters, Mottola hasn't necessarily had a genuine impact in quite awhile. To be honest, he's a great director and knows how to balance comedy and earnestness. His body of work before Keeping Up with the Joneses is very strong. He is probably best known for the raunchy comedy Superbad, which was an immediate hit and managed to find creative uses for phallus drawings. In later years, he did the sci-fi comedy Paul (good, not great) and the "Not Curb Your Enthusiasm" Larry David project Clear History. Yet there is one film that gets entirely overlooked when discussing his best work: Adventureland.

The failure of Adventureland could in part be because of the marketing, which pitted it as a retro version of Superbad. Considering the success of that film, it made some sense to capitalize on its penchant rude humor. It even had Jesse Eisenberg during that period where he was considered a cheap knockoff of Michael Cera. However, those who saw the film would know that there wasn't that aggressive humor or even the barrage of f-bombs that Jonah Hill spouted in Superbad. What there was was something that most directors get the chance to direct only once in their careers. It was a personal ode to Motolla's youth and the drudgery of working at a summer theme park called Adventureland. Add in several references to The Replacements and co-star Kristen Stewart, and you got a very special film.

Adventureland is by no means the funniest movie. However, it may be the most honest that Motolla has ever been. He manages to effectively use a supporting cast that featured Bill Hader, Martin Starr, and Kristen Wiig effectively embodying a work environment full of low rent games and constant confrontations with customers. The film thrives in those dull afternoons where games break down, vomit has to be cleaned up, and the rides play the same songs over and over. It's an endurance test, and one that defines character. The majority of characters embody that transition period between helpless youth and the realization that the future is only going to get tougher. Despite being a miserable job, the general vibe of the film suggests that one should enjoy these years.

It would be easy to have the film succeed on nostalgia: a crutch that too many retro movies and TV series (such as Stranger Things) have relied on. Instead, the appeal lies in the characters who have to wear awful shirts, get value out of punching people, and pointlessly partying at friends' houses. These characters are also human, with Stewart's Em having the conflicted home life that serves as a tragic subplot of the film. The romance may be conventional, but the humanity manages to override it. While not everyone has worked at Adventureland, there is a universal recognition that the viewer has worked a menial job as a teenager. It may have seemed useless, but it built integrity and deepened values.

Eisenberg was on the verge of his major "serious" film The Social Network. He was still the gawky kid who got the roles that Cera didn't. By some strange luck, he has only evolved in the years since. Sure, he takes on some dumb roles (American Ultra), but he's generally justified his existence in the movie circles. Likewise, I feel like Stewart gets unfairly maligned due to the Twilight films. While those are far from high art, I do believe that it keeps a certain portion of audiences from realizing her potential in more recent years. She was phenomenal last year in The Clouds of Sils Maria. She's even great in Adventureland in a more conventional American cinema mold. She has such a compelling frustrated teenager role that anchors the movie beautifully.

The most important part is that the movie feels authentic. Every character serves a purpose. The music rarely feels like it was used for nostalgic purposes. The grounds within Adventureland feel lived in. Most of all, Motolla has a sense of compassion for his characters that make simple moments such as watching fireworks while Crowded Houses play into something powerful. This isn't a film about being young in the 1980's. This is a film about being young and full of optimism. Yes, there are portions that may seem familiar, but the film is one of the underrated coming of age films of this millennium. It could just be that people were disappointed that it wasn't Superbad 2. I'm frankly happy that it wasn't. I personally love Adventureland a whole lot more. I know that it has its share of defenders, but I hope one day it will be recognized for the hidden gem that it actually is.

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