This is part of my 2011 wrap-up series, A Few of My Favorite Things, in which I discuss what I enjoyed the past year, regardless of when it was released.
That Thing You Do is one of my favorite movies of all time. Maybe even my favorite. And it kept popping in to my head as I was watching Adventureland.
It’s not because because the two are especially similar in plot or content. What the two have in common are fantastic control of tone, instantly memorable characters, and a well-told, small-scale story.
Adventureland was marketed as a raunchy teen comedy, which was probably a poor choice and certainly somewhat deceptive. It’s unlike the current breed of most R-rated comedies: The comedy elements are understated, and it has the structure of a character sketch or extended riff rather than a tightly plotted arc.
This has the effect of Adventureland playing more like a John Hughes movie than a Judd Apatow movie, even though it was branded as similar to the latter. It’s the story of a summer stuck at working at a cheap amusement park for the newly-graduated James Brennan.
James’s family falls on a bit of financial hardship and so he has to abandon his planned tour of Europe with his college pals. Instead, he’s stuck manning a games booth at Adventureland, where he gradually gets to know the rest of the people who work there. As he gets involved in their personal lives, things start to get complicated.
I’ll leave my synopsis at that. One of my favorite things about the movie is how it doesn’t follow standard procedure. For example, it’s kind of a romantic comedy, but there’s no “meet cute.” And, after setting up Adventureland as the central location for conflict, the climax takes place entirely away from the theme park.
All of this gives Adventureland an unpredictable, almost natural tone. There isn’t anything particularly special about these people. There’s no magical contrivance driving them together. They’re just a few young adults, equal parts passionate and confused, who bump into and out of each others’ lives.
Adventureland reminded me there can be movies that are both conventionally funny comedies and artistically significant films.
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a kudos to the uniformly superb acting in Adventureland. The AV Club’s excellent review covers the standouts. )
Previously: #11 Mount and Blade: Warband
Up next: A retroactively revealing live album