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[Note: There has been so much written about this film – which is every bit as cumbersome and bloated as its title – that I can hardly muster the will to add more noise to the cacophony, which has been about as enjoyable to sift through during the past week as the Phone Book. But I will nonetheless, purely for the simple fact that I may one day wish to go back and read about my own thoughts on Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (herewith referred to as ‘BvS‘) at the time of release. Here goes.]

BvS opens with the big battle from the end of 2013’s Man Of Steel, and we glimpse Henry Cavill’s Superman fighting Michael Shannon’s antagonist General Zod in the skies above Metropolis; the continuity is a nice touch, and it also introduces the audience to Ben Affleck’s take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, here on the ground sans-Batsuit and trying to save employees unlucky enough to be working in one of the many buildings destroyed by the men of Krypton. (Ever the capitalist pigdog, Wayne drives past dozens of similar buildings that are presumably full of innocent people who need saving in order to get to those on his payroll.) Zack Snyder, the earlier film’s director, is back in the chair for this blockbuster, and I like the fact that he addresses one of the overwhelming criticisms of Man Of Steel, which concerned its lack of empathy with the countless people presumably killed or injured amid all the Zod/Superman carnage. Indeed the issue of that human collateral damage subsequently becomes the driving force for Wayne’s mistrust of Superman, which is echoed more generally by the rest of society, and which in turn paves the way for the good guy versus good guy battle that the title promises.

In this film Superman is a figure who divides public opinion: those who have loved ones saved by the hero treat him like a deity, and he arrogantly bathes in their adoration, while a monument has already been constructed in his honour in Metropolis. Others are skeptical, protesting at said monument and outside the US Capitol, with some wishing to develop the means to control him, including Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor (a performance that I actually found slightly entertaining and colourful, where all else is dark, grave and intentionally serious). Wayne and Luthor’s developing interests in Superman occur in tandem, though the screenplay by Chris Terrio and David Goyer gets slightly bogged down with details while juggling their particular motivations with all the political wrangling. Superman, meanwhile, doesn’t quite know what to make of it all, and still seems to be a work in development, battling a crisis of confidence. On the other side of the ‘versus’ Affleck’s Batman is a tired, grizzled brawler wrestling with his own demons, and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne is a man of few words. Affleck had the tougher job here – new to the franchise, and with Christian Bale’s recent performances as Batman still fresh in the memory of lots of fans – and he does quite well, all told, with his physical presence emphasised by director and cinematographer Larry Fong, which draws attention away from his limitations as an actor. I’ve certainly seen worse Batmen.

Gal-Gadot-Wonder-Woman

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in BvS:DoJ

It takes an age to get to the promised face-off between the two, with plenty of silly dream sequences and tonally-surprising material interrupting along the way (Superman apparently has no problem killing (Arabic) people, for example, while Batman’s brand of rough justice really does become a brand). Meanwhile all the usual peripheral figures from the old comic books and the previous films drop in and out of the story at irregular intervals: Lois Lane, Perry White, Martha Kent and Alfred Pennyworth are all present and correct and played by big stars whose talents are largely being wasted. When the Batman and Superman fight finally takes place it’s a bit of a let-down, all told, and – considering the long build-up – it’s over with quite quickly; lots of unimaginative smashy-smashy, plenty of by-the-numbers paggery-paggery, and a little bit of seen-it-all-before ouchy-ouchy, before the pair bury the hatchet at a surprising speed. This they do in order to engage in another fight, and their enemy for the final showdown is the Luthor-created Doomsday, an orc-like figure who sends out massive shockwaves and who is capable of destroying entire neighbourhoods in seconds (the script’s insistence on pointing out to the audience that these areas are currently deserted, to head-off those earlier criticisms, is laughable). Of course Snyder is into more comfortable territory by this point, and the battle is every bit as long, loud and noisy as you’d expect. Anyone who has seen Man Of Steel will know what’s coming, though it does feature the notable addition of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who has set many pulses a-racing already and will continue to do so in her own spin-off film, slated for 2017.

Even with my limited comic book knowledge I can see that Snyder and his writers have picked certain well-known titles as influences, in terms of the story, the script, the tone, the costumes and the production design of BvS: Mike Carlin’s Death Of Superman series is perhaps the most obvious, while Frank Miller’s famously-murky graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns is also a touchstone; there are hints to A Death In The Family and, presumably, many others. I actually feel a little more generosity toward the director now than I did a couple of years back, as he has at least successfully drawn on this rich history in order to establish a template for this new DC franchise, even if you do happen to dislike the joyless direction he’s moved it in and the reliance on long, skull-buggering set pieces, as I do myself. The DC films do at least feel distinct from those offered up by Marvel, which are generally lighter and frothier in comparison (Snyder, if anything, is a director who seems to have a deep-rooted mistrust for jokes). My sympathy for the director also increased in the wake of the terrible reviews for BvS that stacked up last week; yes it’s long, messy, loud, way too bleak and riddled with plot holes (how exactly does Lois Lane know to find the spear she has thrown away?), but it’s not that bad. (Lest we forget that this recent film is still stinking out the superhero stable.) I don’t disagree with the general thrust of those poor notices, though; the script is wonky and suffers from overcomplication, you exit feeling like you’ve been bashed over the head for 150 minutes, and the relentless dourness sucks most of the enjoyment out of the process. The superhero films I like contain at least a small degree of fascination with the powers wielded by their subjects, particularly when it comes to Superman, but there’s none of that here. There’s nothing in BvS that thrills in the same way as seeing Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent/Superman catching a mugger’s bullet for the first time, or saving Lois Lane as she falls from a skyscraper (though BvS does have its own equivalent of the latter), and it’s those moments of wonder that you miss. Snyder peppers his film with impenetrable dream sequences, references to comic book plots and characters that most viewers will miss or not understand, dreary post-9-11 symbolism, glimpses of actors and heroes who will feature in forthcoming Justice League movies and more building destruction than Fred Dibnah managed in a lifetime, but crucially he has failed yet again to add any real magic to proceedings. Only Hans Zimmer’s side of the shared score manages to do so, and only when it sporadically and briefly incorporates the main theme from Man Of Steel.

Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written by: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishbourne, Diane Lane, Holly Hunter, Scoot McNairy.
Cinematography: Larry Fong.
Editing: David Brenner.
Music:
Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
151 minutes.
Year:
2016.

2 Comments

I really liked Richard Ayoade’s first film, the Welsh coming-of-age dramedy Submarine, and I also like doppelgänger stories, so it probably won’t come as a surprise that I was impressed by his second effort, The Double. Adapting Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name, Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother) have crafted a film that’s as amusing as it is bleak, mining Kafka and Orwell for inspiration as well as the source material. Jesse Eisenberg plays the slightly charmless and downtrodden Simon, a largely forgettable office drone who has worked without thanks and without making much of an impression on colleagues for the past seven years. He is secretly in love with one of them, photocopier Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who happens to live in the apartment opposite his own. She seems to like him, too, until Simon’s physical double suddenly turns up at work; by contrast this new employee, James, is ambitious, confident, charming and a hit with the ladies, and he soon usurps Simon in a number of ways, not least with regard to the potential love of his life.

Their place of work is a dimly-lit retro-looking corporation that brings to mind Michael Radford’s adapation of Nineteen Eighty-Four as well as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and it’s filled with all these whirring, oversize computers and other unwieldy pieces of brass machinery that all look as if they need to be powered-up by crank handles. The CEO is simply referred to as ‘The Colonel’ (James Fox), and no-one seems to know what the company actually does, although it produces a nice line in 1980s-style instructional videos. Petty bureaucracy obstructs the employees at every available opportunity; you’ll either find the build-up of this amusing or you’ll sit there stony-faced, wondering what the fuss is about, but I think Ayoade has a great sense of humour and he sends up the trivialities of the workplace with repeated success. Simon has worked at the company for years but still the security guard (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who also plays two characters) won’t let him in without a pass, which has been lost. He attempts to get a new one from a grinning, nightmarish HR officer (played by the satirist Chris Morris) but is informed that there’s no record of his employment, which means he can’t have a new pass as technically he ‘doesn’t exist’.

Mia Wasikowska in Richard Ayoade's The Double

Mia Wasikowska in Richard Ayoade’s The Double

Spending time in this strange place never becomes boring. The same goes for the other starkly-lit locations that we visit or return to less frequently: a miserable cafe with poor service, a noisy restaurant, the dingy apartment blocks that Hannah and Simon call home. Each is populated with a wandering oddball or two: Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis pops up as a janitor, comedian Tim Key is an uncaring care worker, Chris O’Dowd plays a pushy nurse and Paddy Considine appears on numerous TV sets as the star of a cheapo sci-fi show that resembles Blake’s 7. Ayoade has clearly pulled in a few favours and his casting agents have also carried out their work successfully; on top of all those mentioned above there are appearances by Wallace Shawn and Cathy Moriarty, who played Vicki LaMotta in Raging Bull, while Considine is joined by the rest of the Submarine cast (Craig Roberts, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins). Most of these actors fit their quirky, minor roles very well indeed, and that applies all the way up to the two leads, who are tailor-made for this kind of angular, tragicomic material. In fact I haven’t seen Eisenberg in such a well-suited role since The Social Network, and he convinces while playing both sides of the same coin.

In the hands of a lesser talent the balance between creepy paranoia and lashings of dry humour may have been misjudged, but Ayoade gets it just right, rolling between the deadpan and the dystopian with consummate skill. I like the cinematography here, especially the use of a drab brown and green colour palette, and there’s an interesting reliance on front-lit scenes throughout, lending a theatrical air to proceedings. If any corners were cut I can’t imagine the budget being particularly high it’s not noticeable. You could argue that Ayoade lays the obvious motifs on a bit thick, even though mirrors,  reflections and shadows are the bread and butter of any film about identity and duality, but aside from that I can only think to praise this smart, funny film. Great soundtrack, too, ranging from baroque classical pieces to avant-garde adventures in noise to kitsch lounge bands.

Directed by: Richard Ayoade.
Written by: Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine. Based on The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, James Fox, Cathy Moriarty, Tim Key, Sally Hawkins, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Chris Morris, J Mascis, Paddy Considine.
Cinematography: Erik Wilson.
Editing: Chris Dickens, Nick Fenton.
Music: Andrew Hewitt, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
Year: 2014.

14 Comments

03I never like to judge a film by its performance at the box office, but I think in the case of American Ultra its much-discussed poor return is somewhat unsurprising, and if you’re feeling uncharitable you may even say it’s deserved. This is the kind of film that I’d hoped to enjoy, starring a few actors I think highly of (Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, John Leguizamo), but I’m afraid for an action comedy there simply aren’t enough laughs in Max Landis’ screenplay to warrant any praise.

The film’s concept feels second rate, as if Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) have thrown the first three Jason Bourne films into a pot, seasoned with a (very small) pinch of Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith, and have subsequently presented us with a particularly weak stock: essence du Damon avec un peu de Rogen, if you’ll allow a weak metaphor to stumble on even further. Eisenberg’s Mike Howell is a convenience clerk stoner who wouldn’t be memorable in the slightest except for the fact that – somewhat implausibly – he’s unaware that he’s also a CIA sleeper agent and trained assassin. His relationship with long-term girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) is sweetly-portrayed but their small town bliss is ruptured when two warring CIA bigwigs (Connie Britton and Topher Grace) go head-to-head over the couple’s welfare; Britton’s character wants to protect her pet project while Grace’s wants to shut it down with brute force. Carnage ensues as hitmen are sent after the half-baked lovers.

The easy chemistry Eisenberg and Stewart shared in Greg Mottola’s excellent (and still underrated) Adventureland is present and correct again here, but both writer and director have failed to test the pair’s comic chops and there’s a lack of imagination at play as CIA goons are dispatched, which means further missed opportunities to provide the audience with a few much-needed chuckles. John Leguizamo tries hard to inject some life into proceedings as a friendly dealer, hampered by the fact he only gets a couple of minutes of screen time, while Bill Pullman is similarly wasted and has an air of ‘just pay me already’ when he shows up for the film’s finale. It’s hard to feel any kind of connection with the characters or the town they live in, and I’m sorry to report that the trailer contains all of American Ultra‘s best moments. My advice is to watch that in order to save yourself a wasted hour and a half and the price of a ticket.

Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh.
Written by: Max Landis.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo.
Cinematography: Michael Bonvillain.
Editing: Bill Pankow, Andrew Marcus.
Music: Marcelo Zarvos.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 96 minutes.
Year: 2015.

13 Comments

British magicians working during the 1980s and 1990s really weren’t very glamorous when compared with their American counterparts. The most famous – Paul Daniels, Tommy Cooper – worked for decades in the country’s unforgiving, smoke-filled, late night clubs or cheery seaside venues before getting their big breaks, gradually honing their acts before raising their profiles with appearances on the small screen, while others such as Harry Corbett or Geoffrey ‘The Great Soprendo’ Durham made their way to the golden goose of Saturday night primetime via children’s television. While all four of the aforementioned are or were talented entertainers in their own right, few people could imagine them selling as many tickets as, say, David Copperfield, who is at the time of writing the biggest selling solo entertainer in history in terms of bums on seats (though if Daniels had been counting back in the day…).

While British magicians played to crowds in wet and windy Great Yarmouth, their American counterparts raked in the cash by staging elaborate shows kissed by the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. Or, to highlight the differences in a cruder fashion, around the same time Paul Daniels was marrying his assistant (‘The Lovely’) Debbie McGee, Copperfield was busy perfecting disappearing tricks with the world’s foremost supermodel of the day, Claudia Schiffer. Today our most notable British illusionists – Dynamo, the dead-eyed Derren Brown – have adopted a little of that American razzmatazz, while simultaneously remaining quintessentially British, but it has taken quite some time for the influence to take hold.

It’s quite funny watching the slick group of magicians operating in Louis Leterrier’s patchy Now You See Me with the likes of Daniels and Cooper in mind, as all four – who put on shows as The Four Horsemen – are polished and confident performers straight out of the Copperfield and David Blaine school: it’s all about the grand set piece, the big showstopper, the jaw-dropping finale that will leave the crowd pumping the air with their fists instead of filing quietly onto the streets of Bognor Regis having witnessed the assistant-sawn-in-half trick for the umpteenth time. The Four Horsemen inhabit the world of packed mega-theatres, of large-scale outdoor guerrilla gigs, of light shows and millions of dollars in earnings and huge media interest; it didn’t take long before I lost interest in their shtick and began pining for the understated genius of a Tommy Cooper one-hour special. Now that’s magic, as Paul Daniels used to say.

The magicians in this movie – Jesse Eisenberg as the confident, smarmy one, Woody Harrelson as the confident, smarmy one, Dave Franco as the confident, smarmy one and Isla Fisher as the female confident, smarmy one – are specially selected and teamed up by a shadowy impresario who is apparently operating on behalf of an ancient magic society (though The Magic Circle isn’t mentioned by name, and neither is Sooty’s Magic Club, and those are the two biggest institutions that spring to mind).

This hooded figure – we don’t get to see their face until later – has devised an elaborate series of performances for the Four Horsemen, beginning with the robbery of a Parisian bank, something they manage to do while remaining live on stage in Vegas. The FBI and Interpol quickly become interested, and agents Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) are paired together in order to track and arrest the magicians while simultaneously trading smouldering glances with one another across crowded rooms of barking government spooks. Also keen to catch the Four Horsemen in the act are Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, who both profit from some lazy and predictable casting by playing elderly authoritarian figures for the umpteenth time; one is a former magician who sells DVDs exposing tricks of the trade, the other a wealthy financier who backs the performers before (spoiler alert) ending up on the receiving end of their Robin Hood-esque grandstanding.

The intrigue comes on two fronts: first through the magic set pieces, which accurately bring to mind the big budget, slickly-produced shows of Copperfield and his ilk even if the long-term goal of the Four Horsemen is unclear. Secondly the audience is invited to guess the identity of the figure pulling the strings in the background, something even the magicians themselves don’t know, although anyone who has watched more than ten films in their life will be able to narrow it down to two characters within half an hour. I actually guessed the twist incorrectly in that I picked the wrong one of the two, in fairness to writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt, but that’s probably because I didn’t heed the dozens of hints in the screenplay that urge the viewer to look beyond any obvious diversions and concentrate on what is hidden in plain sight. So more fool me.

A mildly diverting caper movie at best, Now You See Me suffers from several flaws in the story, some unconvincing acting, and there’s too much reliance on the audience to accept the barely credible thievery of the magicians. The budget is big, and aside from the all-star-ish cast, it has been blown on a series of expensive-looking magic show set pieces in New York, Las Vegas and New Orleans. However the crane shots, helicopter footage of the cities at night and the seas of excited extras cannot completely mask the lack of depth to the characters or the sketchy plot, and the film must be seen as an extravagant failure as a result (either that or it’s a very clever spin on the illusionist’s most tried-and-trusted modus operandi: your attention has been diverted for a couple of hours by nothing much in particular and the studio has extracted £10 from your pocket while you were looking the other way). Instead of addressing the fact the characters are underdeveloped or the fact the plot is full of holes Leterrier simply throws in one of the most implausible fight scenes and car chases that I’ve seen in many a year. Anyone would be forgiven for giving up entirely at this point.

Part of the problem stems from the way the characters have been written. None of the four magicians, for example, are particularly likeable (or, more importantly, interesting): two are shakedown merchants who we first meet while they are preying on the general public, while Eisenberg’s Danny Atlas (uh, did someone mention Ocean’s Eleven?) is a smug, smooth-talking irritant with no vulnerability to compensate. Fisher’s Henley Reeves is supposedly his ex, but the two actors managed to make me care less about their shared history or their future than I did before I was aware of their existence in the first place, which is quite something.

So, if it’s not the Horsemen, who exactly are we supposed to be rooting for here? Perhaps it’s Dylan Rhodes, the FBI agent, but then he spends most of his time scowling, squinting and generally being a dick: his outrage at being forced to work with (gasp!) a woman who is (la double gasp!) French or when his botched investigation is taken over by (gasp!) a superior is priceless. Freeman’s Thaddeus Bradley is similarly unlikable as he’s the only man who manages to equal Danny’s level of smugness when running through his exposés of the tricks we see during the movie. I ended up sympathising with the one character I presume I wasn’t supposed to sympathise with: Caine’s Arthur Tressler, who is clearly set up as a figure of hate because a) he’s English (bastard!) and b) he’s involved in the insurance industry (the risk-assessing, claim-form loving, policy-writing, small-print-inserting bastard!). But at least he has a sad, hurt face when the Horsemen double-cross him; it’s just a shame that the character disappears mid-way through the film, as though Caine had booked a holiday to the south of France and couldn’t possibly reschedule to fit in any further necessary work on Now You See Me. Though you’d be within your rights to argue that Caine was on holiday from the moment he turned up on set.

While the acting is not universally poor, many here are frankly below par, though the poor writing is a factor that must be considered. Given that Eisenberg and Harrelson gained a few plaudits for their unlikely buddy act in Zombieland it’s disappointing that they fail to re-create a similar spark here, though their performances are at least just about memorable. Considering the Four Horsemen are supposed to be equals it’s a shame that Franco and Fisher are unconvincing and neither makes any kind of lasting impression. Ruffalo fares worse, stinking up the screen in nearly all of his scenes, which is a shame as he is a performer I generally enjoy watching; he can do much better than this, but to re-iterate I think the writing is partly to blame, and the actor isn’t helped by the fact he is required to wear a perplexed or disgruntled look throughout while barking out one clichéd law enforcement phrase after another. It’s all a bit tired and uninspiring.

As usual I find myself ending with a ‘well what the hell do I know anyway?’ as, despite its faults, Now You See Me banked hundreds of millions of dollars and (predictably) an utterly unnecessary sequel is in development. In fact it made substantially more at the box office than two other recent – and vastly superior – films about magicians: Neil Burger’s underrated The Illusionist and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, both of which were probably ignored by large numbers of the general public because they are period pieces. Nolan and Burger’s films succeeded partly because they were filled with interesting characters, whereas here it seems such an essential element has been forgotten about. And thus it appears that people are more likely to go for the razzle dazzle of lights and the flashiness of modern magic shows, which is a shame because this film is actually close to being an outright disaster.

Sadly Leterrier’s only trick is to make his film louder and flashier as it goes on; it’s a transparent one, and it can’t save this empty, rushed caper, but it does at least contain plenty of energy and some of the magic show scenes are entertaining. During the stuttering, never-ending finale, as the Four Horsemen leap off a disused, graffiti-strewn New York building and seemingly dissolve into thousands of dollar bills that rain down on the massive crowd below, I was left wondering what seasoned performers like Paul Daniels or even Jerry Sadowitz would make of it all. And that’s before the magic tree and fairground appeared.

The Basics:
Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Written by: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Mélanie Laurent, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 111 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 3.4

18 Comments

A while back I watched Greg Mottola’s Paul and made the point in my review that, of Mottola’s four films to date as director, it was a shame that the two he hadn’t actually written himself (Paul and Superbad) had attracted a far greater audience than the two that he also penned (The Daytrippers and Adventureland). The latter pair seem destined to sit on a shelf marked ‘permanently underrated’, which is a real shame as they are both great examples of subtle, nuanced and bittersweet comedy writing, and contain some good performances. The Daytrippers was even an early winner at the Slamdance Film Festival.

That was Mottola’s debut, released way back in 1996, and co-produced by Steven Soderbergh. In the UK at least I remember it receiving some positive reviews that tended to praise both the script and the performances by the cast, which included Stanley Tucci, Parker Posey, Hope Davis and Liev Schreiber (Davis – Synedoche, New YorkAbout SchmidtAmerican Splendor – is always good and she doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition she deserves). A witty indie road trip movie in the same vein as Sideways or Little Miss Sunshine, it made a couple of million at the box office despite a limited release but sadly seems uncared for today.

Mottola concentrated on TV for ten years after The Daytrippers, but returned in 2007 under the hugely successful Judd Apatow / Seth Rogen umbrella with Superbad, a largely-formulaic teen comedy that ticked all the right boxes and had its moments of fun. With a box office success to point to, Mottola was able to make his third film – and another self-penned comedy – and thus Adventureland appeared in screens five years ago. Unfortunately it was mis-marketed to attract those who enjoyed Superbad and other Apatow-related juvenelia, and many who were expecting a teenage / early-20s sex comedy filled with LOL after LOL after LOL were disappointed. Despite good reviews, it didn’t fare too well commercially.

Set in 1987, Adventureland draws on Mottola’s own experience working in a theme park of the same name in Farmingdale, New York. The story has been transplanted to Pittsburgh, where recent college graduate James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is looking forward to a summer travelling around Europe with a friend before he begins a post-graduate journalism course. Without much warning, however, his parents (played by Wendie Malick and Jack Gilpin) explain to James that their financial situation has worsened, and he must instead work through the summer in order to fund his future studies.

Thankfully the wordy James is no brat, and rather than kicking off and moaning about the unfair hand life has dealt him, he sets out to find employment in a variety of places across the city. He ends up at Adventureland, a tired-looking theme park managed by the enthusiastic married couple Bobby (Bill Hader, who steals every single scene he is in) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig). In possession of a small amount of weed, James quickly befriends the other employees, including the deadpan and similarly-bookish Joel (Martin Starr), the much-desired Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), old school friend and committed cockpuncher Frigo (Matt Bush) and the clued-up Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart), with whom he shares an instant connection.

The use of the setting is excellent. The theme park’s name gives us an indication of what lies ahead for James, and Mottola milks its comic potential. Joel lets James into the secret cheats of carnival games at the start of the summer season, which we all knew about anyway, but it’s nice to have them confirmed by this script. Employees here are split by Bobby into two groups – intellectual freaks n’ geeks work on ‘games’ and the better looking members of staff are assigned to work on ‘rides’, with blue and pink t-shirts confirming the pigeonholing. (Brilliantly, these t-shirts echo the words ‘games, games, games … ‘ and ‘rides, rides, rides … ‘, indicating those wearing the former are slightly more complicated, complex and cerebral types and those wearing the latter are the good-time bunch, freed from self-analysis. Do the two make good matches? Not in this movie.) Meanwhile the adults working in the park seem to be trapped in a kind of semi-adolescence, which must be due in part to the nature of the location; additionally it must be depressing working full-time in a place where everyone else is simply passing through for a few months, and largely unable to hide their scorn for the job at hand.

Adventureland’s love story is a fairly straightforward one. James and Em appear to be a perfect match for each other: the same age, on the same wavelength, sharing similar interests and taste in music, and both have a future planned that involves studying in New York City. However, this being a coming-of-age comedy (sorta, kinda), things do not go according to plan. James is naïve and struggles to handle the more emotionally-complex and (slightly) troubled Em, who compounds matters herself by carrying on an affair with park mechanic and married man Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds).

Reynolds sends up his own heartthrob image superbly as the semi-tragic park worker who fabricates stories about jamming with Lou Reed in order to impress the younger girls working at the theme park each summer. There is something pathetic about Connell, who is getting older but is apparently refusing to engage with people of his own age, including his own wife. Instead, his attention is drawn to the yearly influx of teenage girls who collectively swoon as they hear his tried-and-tested lines; unable to take them home, he screws them in his car or at his mother’s house. In a way, he is similar to Matthew McConaughey’s more exuberant, more likeable Wooderson in Dazed And Confused; both are just a little bit pitiable, hanging around with kids of a certain age instead of moving on in life with their own peers. Thankfully Mottola has not created a straightforward villain of the piece, though, and the character’s decent traits make him (and Em’s attraction to him) all the more believable.

The writing and performances of the cast make up for the fairly basic tried-and-tested love triangle plot, which actually morphs into a love quadrangle at one point. James is a sharp hero, played with bumbling Woody Allen-esque nervousness by Eisenberg but without the exaggerated mania, and his withering self-deprecation is endearing. James is a virgin, but this feels incidental, and Adventureland is not laden with the farce of a young man desperately trying to rid himself of that actually-not-so-terrible tag. He is a thoughtful soul, and smart, and Eisenberg is very good at inhabiting this type of character without ever seeming to be trying too hard. James shares some excellent repartee with Em, making their mutual attraction seem entirely plausible, but they’re also a good physical match. (When James spots some graffiti on a park wall, for example, he points out ‘Satan Lives’ has been mis-spelled ‘Satin Lives’. ‘One of those textile worshipping cults no doubt,’ Em dryly replies.)

Stewart is equally good as Em, a character that has considerably more baggage to deal with than the male cast members. It’s a measured performance that requires a few histrionics from time to time, but she is equal to the task and remains completely believable throughout. Having not seen any of the Twilight movies, this was the first film I had seen starring Kristen Stewart, and I was impressed. From what I can gather, this is a world away from her more widely-seen performances.

Starr gets some pretty good lines, and Bush makes the livewire Frigo fun to watch (although the running gag involving him punching James in the groin starts to wear thin after a while), but the scenes that stand out most in terms of the comedy all involve Hader and Wiig’s husband and wife Bobby and Paulette. Of the two Wiig generously takes a backseat to her onscreen other half, and stands back as Hader runs around Adventureland manically, all wild-eyes and short shorts. Hader’s ability to switch between screaming aggression towards unruly park visitors and calm kindness towards his wife and employees is very, very funny. You want to see more of both characters, but Mottola wisely keeps their appearances to a minimum, ensuring that they do not attract too much attention away from the main plot.

Adventureland covers all of the usual coming-of-age bases: smoking pot, the journey of self-discovery, a first relationship and a first break-up, the joys of getting drunk and listening to cool music. In that sense there’s nothing new to see here, but there is a lot of pleasure still to be had in the way that these factors are all handled maturely. The characters get high, but there’s no ‘ho-ho-ho I’ve got the munchies’ nonsense that some films rely on in order to attract a stoner audience. The writer-director’s sense of restraint with the subject matter – particularly as he could have easily tried to make Superbad 2 – is commendable.

This same lightness of touch is applied to the period setting. Adventureland isn’t overly concerned with hitting its audience with heavy reminders about the 1980s, and Mottola refrains from packing in a ton of visual signifiers or any sense of the decade’s news apart from a brief allusion at the start to Reaganomics. The clothes give the decade away, as do the cars and the music, but that’s about it; there are no Rubik’s Cubes being solved or yellow smiley faces on t-shirts and there are plenty of images that recall even earlier times. Mottola is appreciative of the fact that plenty of people in the mid-to-late 1980s were still driving cars that were produced in the 1970s, and they also listened to music that was made before 1980, something which some filmmakers seem to conveniently forget when looking back. The soundtrack is great and the emotional scenes between Em and James are scored well, but Mottola – crucially – also uses his selection innovatively: Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus, for example, is used to subtly show the passing of time, the park’s staff groans growing ever louder each time it is played at deafening volume.

Though familiarity with the subject matter can often breed contempt, Adventureland succeeds because it is a perfect example of the rite-of-passage comedy drama done well. It eschews gross-out gags in favour of character-driven witty dialogue and scenes of romantic poignancy, but it is by no means averse to the occasional boner joke. Mottola has coaxed good performances from his actors and the main characters are subtly-drawn. Hopefully he will be writing and directing more films in the future. Generally, I don’t think we cherish makers of good comedy films in the same way we do those who construct excellent dramas, thrillers or action films. This one shouldn’t be forgotten.

The Basics:

Directed by: Greg Mottola
Written by: Greg Mottola
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 106 minutes
Year: 2009
Rating: 8.0

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