Call it the "Superbad Syndrome". When the Michael Cera/Jonah Hill film came out in August of 2007, many weren't sure what to expect. It seemed like a standard teen comedy, but the title and ad campaign suggested some manner of surreal '70s throwback. In the end, Greg Motolla's homage to horny post-millennial youth was a dick-joke laden lark, the kind of giggle from the back row of church style of satire that really delivered. Given the massive bank the movie made, it seemed only fair that Motolla be given a chance to spread his own wings (the Superbad script was a Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg joint). What he created was the wildly ambitious and wonderfully layered Adventureland. As much a love letter to the past as a kiss-off to a less than triumphant time, Motolla took his semi-autobiographical look at the late '80s and turned it into cinematic gold. Sadly, it didn't make the money the studios hoped. It's up to DVD to save the day - and it should.
James Brennan and his college roommate are headed to Europe. There's just one catch - money. And when his Dad gets demoted (he has an apparent drinking problem), the promised graduation present of some extra cash causes all his plans to fall through. Back at home before heading to grad school, James must get a summer job. Overqualified for almost anything, he stumbles into local amusement park Adventureland and ends up on the games crew. There, he meets up with Joel, a likeable nerd with delusions of intellectual grandeur, Connell, an older maintenance man with a wife and a fetish for collegiate flesh, Bobby and Paulette, the perfectly matched managers of the mangy attraction, and Em, a complicated, compelling young gal. Everyone at Adventureland seems lost and alone and it's not long before James and Em decide to spend their precious time together. Our hero hopes it will blossom into love. But like most things in his life, secrets and unforeseen circumstances appear destined to thwart his well-worn wishes and dreams.
To repeat - here's hoping that Adventureland finds a more friendly audience on DVD. When the film first arrived in theaters more than five months ago, it was indeed marketed as some kind of Superbad follow-up. Writer/director Greg Mottola was hyped advertising ad nauseum as the mind behind said Apatow sex farce, and frequent Apatow faces Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader got lots of screen time. But the truth was far more complicated than some kind of creative coattail riding. Mottola parlayed the success of the Michael Cera/Jonah Hill hit and instead of staying with the scatological, he went with the warm and wistful instead. In fact, he appeared to be returning to the subtle indie roots he first explored in his debut film The Daytrippers. Yet the demo was demanding more Superbadness, and when they got one look at this nostalgic glimpse at a Pittsburgh summer in 1987, the confusion cost the film commercial. So it's up to the digital domain to save this film - not just to counter the crappy PR ploys, but because this brilliant little gem definitely deserves it.
Adventureland is the first great coming of age film for the post-Obama Boomers. The characters depicted are in their early 20s during this Greed Decade time of fading Reaganomics and growing social insecurity. Translate that 22 years to 2009, and we are talking about the scattered 40-somethings who see the American Dream turning into a national nightmare. That's why it's so easy to get lost in Motolla's world of pot cookies, K cars, and The Replacements. Sure, the cloud of uncertainty raised by the current administration colors the edges of Adventureland, but Motolla is not out to make a political statement - unless you mean the politics of interpersonal pain. Looking over this cast of characters, from the wallflower ennui of James to the displaced dysfunctional anger of Em, no one is really happy. Ryan Reynold's Connell is cheating on his wife, using young girls as a means of recapturing a rock and roll youth that probably never was. Martin Starr's superdork Joel is friendly and personable, but has also cultivated a loner persona so large it blocks out all attempts at a connection. Even Bobby and Paulette come across as slightly sad and pathetic.
This is the real world, people. This is how it is when you're young, directionless, ambitious, and suppressed. Motolla makes it very clear that all of these people could be successful if they just found the right outlet for their eccentricity. That Adventureland the amusement park seems to house so many of the disenfranchised and disillusioned is standard for the coming of age story. Even better, though, Motolla reminds us of how transcendental it all can be, how that first feeling of true complicated love trumps someone like Lisa P.'s hot hormonal temptations, or how a drunken date with a coworker can seem like the moment when your good guy intelligence finally pays off. There are big truths in this movie as well as tiny snippets of observational clarity. Motolla may be arguing about breaking free from one's preconceived path, but when James and Em finally decide to commit, that's not necessarily the end. It's just an ending, another in life's many phases. It really is too bad that Superbad had to stain this film's chances at bigger box office success. Adventureland is a classic. It deserved its own moment to shine.
Low budget or not, this film looks fabulous. Motolla went all out to make every penny count, at least technically, and the DVD version of Adventureland really amplifies this (the Blu-ray is even better). The Kennywood, PA setting comes across as old and yet endearing, while the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image captures the filmmaker's feel for space and scope. The colors are terrific and the sense of detail outstanding. Even the cast looks good, given an '80s makeover without going completely unreasonably retro.
As stated before, Motolla sprinkles his score with all manner of post-New Wave classics. He even tosses in a few certified club cuts ("Point of No Return", "Obsession") to keep the Madonna-wannabes happy. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix does offer up some nice amusement park ambience, and the songs always come across with aural authority. With crisp, clean dialogue and easy to read subtitles, the sonic situation here is excellent.
While a little disappointing, the DVD added content is a lot of fun. Motolla and star Jesse Eisenberg are on hand for a dry, droll commentary track that's as much about them as it is about the film. Also available is a genial little Making-of, a clever set of commercials for the fictional Adventureland amusement park, a chance to choose a particular song (and corresponding scene), as well as some nifty, if unnecessary, deleted scenes. By the way, don't let the cover art come-on about everything being "Unrated" fool you. The film itself is not different. Motolla makes that clear in the alternate narrative. Instead, Miramax is pulling a bit of a bait and switch. They are arguing that the bonus features are not rated - which is not unusual, since the MPAA usually doesn't require they be so.
With a better selection of extras and a more impressive package, Adventureland would earn am easy DVD Talk Collector's Series tag. It's just that good of a film. On the other hand, it is impossible to create universe truths and maxims out of one man's memory, no matter how convincing and compelling they are. Greg Motolla has taken his time at a small amusement park and translated it into a timeless portrait of individual struggles and strides. Had it come out on its own terms, celebrated apart from the constant connection to a certain Mr. Apatow, it might have had a chance. It could have found its audience and catered solely what it expected from a two decades-old bit of reminiscence. Instead, we now have to let home video save the day, to play messiah to a movie that deserved to be its own iconic theatrical entity. Whatever the case, this Highly Recommended effort is well worth investing in. Greg Motolla's Adventureland is indeed a great film. Now's your chance to find out why.