Thursday, May 28, 2009

You don't know where I've been!

When I was growing up, my family took an annual vacation to the White Mountains. As a kid, I didn't get the irony of taking a vacation without leaving the state - all I could think about was Story Land. Founded by a married couple in the 1950s, Story Land is a fairytale-themed amusement part that provided me with my annual dose of enchantment until I reached the age where I was too cool for such things (or, at least, felt obligated to feign indifference). One of the main charms of Story Land was that we knew exactly what to expect every summer; though Adventureland takes place in 1987, I wouldn't be surprised if the real Adventureland is much the same as it was 20 years ago (assuming it hasn't been bought by Six Flags). Adventureland doesn't have the same nostalgia for Adventureland that I have for Story Land - inspired by writer/director Greg Mottola's experiences working there as a teen, it uses the predictable attractions of the park to underscore the anxiety of its characters, who find themselves reluctantly on the verge of adulthood. That Mottola perfectly evokes not just 1987 or theme park culture but the moment we realize we don't know anything makes Adventureland one of the most finely observed movies about youth.

James (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college and, desparately in need of money for grad schoool, gets a summer job at Adventureland. He's assigned to Games, where he meets Em (Kristen Stewart), a dark-haired NYU student who hasn't fully processed the death of her mother two years earlier. James, of course, promptly falls for Em, who has Hüsker Dü in her tape deck, can talk passionately about social injustic over whiskey and beer, knows how to make pot cookies and suggests reservoirs of unspoken feeling - in other words, a girl that any bookish, socially inept romantic might carry a torch for when they're James' age. Stewart and Eisenberg (essentially playing an older version of his character from The Squid and the Whale) have a believable chemistry, and Mottola - who previously excelled at eliciting strong performances from young actors in Superbad - smartly allows his film to be driven by moments like the one where James quietly studies Em's reactions as they listen to a mix tape he gave her as a gift, hoping that Lou Reed will tell her the things he can't quite articulate.

The film also avoids the standard "sensitive guy pursues unattainable girl" formula - James and Em kiss in the second reel, and both have factors that keep them not quite together. These includes James' virginity, which he insists he's keeping for the right woman (we get the feeling that he used to tell himself this, but it's become true), his flirtation with park hottie Lisa P (Margaria Levieva) - whose work shirt promises "RIDES" in contrast to Em's "GAMES" - and, especially, Em's secret affair with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), an older, married park mechanic. In a more generic version of Adventureland, Connell would be the villain, but Mottola makes the character more complex - he's an asshole who uses his charisma and his (total bullshit) story about having once toured with Lou Reed to sleep with younger girls, but he never antagonizes James and even seems to be encouraging his relationship with Em, and we gradually notice the character's total self-loathing. With Reynolds in the role, it's like the sad reality of Van Wilder, and it's to his credit that he seems to get the joke.

Mottola extends this same generosity to all his characters - even Lisa P grows beyond a slut caricature to reveal surprising sensitivity. The film's structure is loose enough to allow effectively understated moments like the one where we realize James' hyperintellectual friend Joel (Martin Starr) is carrying his own torch for Em. And then there's Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), who own the park and fell for one another through their shared dream - Wiig's offhanded delivery of the line "This is how we met" when Hader shows off his carny skills is priceless, and a scene involving a baseball bat made me laugh harder than anything so far this year except for Observe and Report (it's shaping up to be a good year for comedies). Even Frigo (Matt Bush), James' childhood bully, is given shades of depth beyond groin-punching jokes. And the subtle touch extends to the film's cinematography - utilizing a great deal of low-key and often solely available light, it not only makes for a great contrast between the neon-colored days at the park and the dimly lit nights spent hanging out in the middle of nowhere, but it gives the whole film an immediacy that takes you back to your own formative years. Adventureland sidesteps sentimentality completely and never stops to wax nostalgic about the best years of our lives; it earns its laughter and its romantic moments, and does so beautifully.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Play the game (5/14/09)

Last month: Popeye

How much did Arthur get paid to kill Merlin?

The work of director Jody Hill is a much-needed slap in the face to every half-assed comedy that promises "shock humor" while exploiting cultural stereotypes in the most safe, obvious way possible. In the low-budget martial arts comedy The Foot Fist Way and the HBO series Eastbound and Down, Hill and frequent collaborators Ben Best and Danny McBride skewer the regressive, hypermasculine attitudes that other comedies hold up as an ideal. Tae Kwon Do instructor Fred Simmons and burnt-out ace pitcher Kenny Powers (both played by McBride), in addition to being extremely funny, implicitly expose the narcissism and desparation of our Dane Cooks, Van Wilders and Blue Collar Comedy Tours. Observe and Report, Hill's first solo effort as a writer/director, has been condemned to live in the shadow of Paul Blart: Mall Cop; this is a shame because it's much funnier (in fact, it's one of the funniest movies of all time), but also because it, in its twisted way, it eviscerates the banal, soulless mall culture that Blart celebrates. It's the blackest, most subversive comedy to sneak through the studio system since Fight Club, and in the rare moments when I wasn't laughing, I was grinning from ear to ear at the thought that Hill got away with it.

Hill has stated the idea for Observe and Report began with "Taxi Driver as a comedy," and it's astonishing how fully he's followed through with the implications of that premise. His Travis is mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), a mentally unstable schlub who takes his job extremely seriously. When a serial flasher (Randy Gambill) starts to prowl the mall parking lot, Ronnie becomes convinced that catching the pervert will prove himself superior to the detective (Ray Liotta) assigned to the case and win the affections of Brandi (Anna Faris), his dream girl, who works at a cosmetics counter. At first Ronnie seems like an affable variation on Seth Rogen's stoner-dude persona, but we quickly learn that Ronnie's macho self-delusions mask very real problems - his bipolar disorder, coupled with his extremely dysfunctional relationship with his alcoholic mom (Celia Weston), have made Ronnie a ticking time bomb who sublimates his violent impulses into his work. For Ronnie, who can't pass the psych exam to become a cop, guarding the mall and particularly Brandi are a way of fighting his own demons - it's the movie's great unspoken joke that Ronnie is able to correctly predict that the flasher will target Brandi because, under different circumstances, he'd do the same.

This is pitch-black material for a comedy, made darker by Hill's ability to mine laughs from the sad reality of Ronnie's life, and Rogen deserves a world of credit, when he could be coasting on the aforementioned stoner-dude persona, for playing an almost completely unlikable character. When a Middle Eastern kiosk worker (Aziz Ansari) being interrogated by Ronnie accuses him of racism, Ronnie responds that "It's not racism - you fit the profile," and the sad, hilarious thing is that Ronnie believes this. Ronnie, in his psychically vulnerable state, has completely bought into the reactionary, ultra-conservative concept of heroism; the irony is that, in the consumerist void he protects, he's actually the most likeable character because he at least believes in something. Brandi, the object of his affections, is the embodiment of everything ugly about mall culture - she's stupid, self-absorbed, mean and oblivious to the world around her - and Faris demonstrates again that she's the most talented actress around at playing idiots. A montage, during Brandi and Ronnie's hilariously painful date, of Brandi doing about a dozen shots (Faris punctuates each with pitch-perfect deliveries of Brandi making observations like "It burns so good") plays like Hill couldn't decide which of Faris' takes to use and instead decided to use them all. The joke of the sort-of date-rape scene that has some humorless people up in arms is that for Ronnie, a few minutes of thrusting into an indifferent, barely-conscious Brandi is the closest thing to romance he's ever experienced. As with last year's Burn After Reading, one can read the characters' respective self-delusion and narcissism as the root of all evils today - I don't know if Hill intended for Observe and Report to shoulder a sociopolitical reading, but it does give frightening credibility to Ronnie's fellow security guard Dennis (Michael Peña), who explains after a day-long drug binge that everything is meaningless.

And yet the brilliance of Observe and Report is that, unlike the "everyone is stupid but us" humor of South Park (still a great show) and Family Guy (definitely not), it doesn't exempt itself or its audience from its scrutiny. When Ronnie single-handedly beats the snot out of several gang members in a scene that may or may not be a delusion (and uncannily recalls a similar scene in Watchmen), the moment is exhilarating even though the violence is painfully real. And when he brutalizes a Cinnabon manager (Patton Oswalt) to defend the honor of kind, Jesus-loving barista Nell (Collette Wolfe), I found myself initially cheering Ronnie's actions before laughing at my own horrifying approval of his violent chivalry. By the time Ronnie finds himself in a prolonged Oldboy homage set to Queen's score for Flash Gordon, I no longer knew what was real or what only existed in Ronnie's head, but I found myself sort of rooting for him all the same. I'm not certain whether Observe and Report is aesthetically or morally defensible; all I know is, when the flasher plotline reaches its climax, I haven't laughed as hard since Walter Sobchak decided to teach little Larry Sellars a lesson.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

You can't get a job without a job.

Back when my mom was teaching Bible studies, she would frequently caution against topical sermons, which she said offer an easy understanding of the lesson at hand but leave the congregation with little sustenance. Perhaps this is why it feels like pointing out that Wendy and Lucy is the perfect movie for the current economic crisis is both obvious and a backhanded compliment. But there's nothing obvious about Wendy and Lucy; the story of a few days in the life of a woman in transit and her dog, director Kelly Reichardt's third feature is proudly, perhaps defiantly elusive. It's a movie in a minor key, but if you find yourself on its wavelength (as I did), it's an emotionally wrenching experience, one person's story as a universal meditation on alienation and loss.

We meet Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy (Reichardt's dog, also named Lucy) as they're making their way to Alaska, where Wendy hopes to find work at a cannery. We don't learn much about what motivated Wendy to make the trip from Indiana, though a tense phone call with her brother-in-law and her anxious encounters with people she meets suggests that money wasn't the main reason. Wendy wakes one morning to discover that her car won't start, which starts a chain of small events that accumulate into a devastating turning point in Wendy's life. Reichardt never reaches for dramatic effect, observing from a medium distance as Wendy's world quietly falls apart - every shot is impeccably composed, using the minimalistic settings to maximum effect. When most movies are becoming faster and louder, to see a film that recalls Ozu and De Sica is a shock to the senses, as Reichardt's deliberate approach places us in Wendy's lowtops.

Williams does an incredible job of letting us inside Wendy's head even in her many dialogue-free scenes. Sporting a pageboy haircut that reminds of Scout Finch, wide-eyed and costumed in almost gender-neutral clothes, Williams gives Wendy an almost preadolescent innocence that makes sense of Wendy's disconnect from those around her (in a way, the film is an overdue coming-of-age story). Reichardt uses the rural Oregon setting to illustrate how most of the country has become unliveable for sub- or countercultural ways of life. A teenage cashier (John Robinson) with a cross around his neck changes Wendy's life forever thanks to his unshakable allegiance to "store policy," while a Walgreens security guard (Wally Dalton) offers Wendy what help he can and uses his sense of humor to find peace with the many irrationalities of modern life; the cashier and the guard are two sides of the same coin, one proudly and the other ironically "playing the game" in a way that Wendy herself cannot. At the same time, Wendy can't relate to the gutter punks she meets along the way and is one of. Perhaps it's this total lack of connection that led Film Freak Central's Ian Pugh to label Wendy and Lucy "the navel-gazing ramblings of a misanthropic Luddite." But I don't think Reichardt is trying to say that human connection is impossible, and it's Williams who lets us know, one small gesture at a time, that perhaps Wendy doesn't even understand what is driving her further and further away.

Wendy and Lucy ultimately hinges on a choice that is bound to tear any dog lover apart. I'm usually reluctant to praise one movie by putting down another, but Wendy and Lucy is in many ways the anti-Marley and Me. In that movie (I assume, and could be wrong), having a pet is shorthand for a comfortable domestic existence. Wendy and Lucy's relationship is more complicated; Wendy clearly has affection for her dog but also seems to rely on the false sense of protection the dog gives her. It's suggested that Wendy takes more from Lucy than she is able to give - as one character rather harshly points out, maybe she shouldn't have a dog if she can't take care of it. And though the movie doesn't end with Wendy, shotgun in hand, taking Lucy behind the woodshed, there is the sense that the change in their relationship has seismic implications for where Wendy is headed, even if we know as little about where she'll end up as we do about where she's been.