The crappy post-college job is a rite of passage. It builds character, teaches you humility and better prepares you for “the real world.” Or at least that’s what I’ve been told. Currently stuck in that listless limbo between past collegiate freedom and looming “adulthood,” I sympathize with the main characters of “Adventureland” and “Waiting,” who struggle to find their own unique places in the supposedly grown-up world.
Though the trials and triumphs of directionless twenty-somethings is hardly constitutes new cinematic ground, both films attempt to make their mark on the well-worn genre. It’s slacker versus slacker, and there can only be one winner.
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It’s 1987 and James has just graduated from college and is preparing to spend the summer abroad before beginning grad school at Columbia. Unfortunately for him, Reaganomics haven’t worked out for his family – his father’s been demoted, so there’s no money for either Europe or Columbia. Forced to find a summer job, James soon realizes that his degree in Renaissance Studies hardly qualifies him for manual labor. “Unless someone wants help restoring a fresco, I’m fucked,” he mutters after yet another none-too-subtle telephonic rejection. He ultimately takes the only job he can find, working games at Adventureland, a run down, second-rate amusement park where the rides make you puke, the corn dogs are possibly lethal and the games are rigged so that “no one ever wins a giant-ass panda.” Under the watchful eye of the park’s exuberant managers, Bobby and his wife Paulette, James begins to immerse himself in the everyday life of Adventureland.
With a bag of joints as social currency, James strikes up friendships with his misfit co-workers, who include pipe-smoking and bottled-lensed Joel, who’s fond of misquoting obscure Russian novelists; the curvaceous, gum-chewing and terminally dim Lisa P.; Connell, the cool, married older guy who supposedly once jammed with Lou Reed and who has a penchant for girls half his age; and Em, a pretty and intriguingly enigmatic girl who makes James promptly forget Europe and the “sexually permissive cultures” he’d been looking forward to exploring. Even though their jobs are crap and they’re “doing the work of pathetic, lazy morons” they’re all in it together, for better or worse. As the summer stretches on, these unlikely friends party, make out, break up and struggle to bridge the gap between youth and adulthood and, ultimately, find their places in the world.
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The Defending Champion
“Waiting” follows the employees of a cheesy chain restaurant ShenaniganZ (the extra “Z” should give you an indication of the restaurant’s caliber) over the course of a dinner shift. It’s the first day of work for Mitch, a fresh-faced, wide-eyed youth, who is shown the ropes by Monty, a snarky waiter with a yen for underage girls (are we sensing a pattern here for a certain actor?). With Monty as his guide, Mitch is introduced to his fellow wait-staffers, who include nice-guy Dean; his pretty girlfriend Amy; Monty’s ex, Serena; foul-mouthed Naomi; and over-sensitive Calvin. Also popping up are the perpetually horny cook Raddimus; the advice-dispensing dishwasher Bishop; the Lolita-esq hostess Natasha; wannabe gangster busboys T-Dog and Nick; and sexy lesbian bartender Tyla. Monty also explains to Mitch the rules of the Penis game, a favorite pastime of the male employees. The rules are simple – trick an unsuspecting co-worker into staring at your exposed gentials and you get to kick him in the ass and call him a fag. Bonus kicks are awarded for arranging your genitals in interesting ways. Mitch is also shown what happens to customers who break the cardinal rule: Don’t mess with the people who handle your food. Customers who are rude to their waiters or have the nerve to send back food are sent entrees that have seasoned with dandruff, pubic hair, spit and other bodily fluids. Meanwhile, Dean has been offered the underwhelming promotion of assistant manager. Having found out earlier that day that one of his former high school classmates has just graduated with a degree in engineering, Dean begins to re-evaluate the direction his life is taking.
Despite the fact that it is being advertised as the latest raucous teen comedy from the director of “Superbad,” writer/director Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland” is more John Hughes than Judd Apatow. Don’t get me wrong, the film is very funny, but its humor is both quieter and sharper than the raucous raunch of “Superbad.” Based on Mottola’s own experience working at an amusement park the summer after college, “Adventureland” is a far more personal and introspective film than his earlier effort.
Jesse Eisenberg is brilliant as the intelligent but sexually awkward James, who is so earnestly sincere it’s almost painful. James is still a virgin at 22, though he has remained in that condition by choice. One has to wonder, however, if his earnest and touching belief in romance hasn’t also helped prevent his belated deflowering: Out with Em one night, he tells her he broke up with a former girlfriend because she didn’t live up to the standard set by a Shakespearean sonnet.
Kristen Stewart is outstanding as Em, an intense young woman who works at Adventureland to get away from her father and stepmother. Em has found herself stuck in a dead-end affair with Connell, the park’s married handyman, and the relationship is starting to corrode her self-image. Despite her youth, Em has experienced the pain and disappointments of a much older person. Stewart somehow manages to keep Em’s pain right below the surface, so that you can feel it, ever present, just out of sight. There’s a coltishness about her, a jumpiness that makes you feel as if she’s always got one eye on the door. Yet despite her many emotional complications, she falls for James, perhaps because of his innocence, sincerity and, yes, wry humor.
The band of misfits surrounding James manages to be more that the usual teen-comedy archetypes. Sure, you’ve got the lothario, the geek, the vamp and the delightfully clueless adults, but Mottola allows them to break out of their molds and morph into three-dimensional characters. Ryan Reynolds plays Connell, the rock-star handy man, who is constantly unfaithful to his wife and uses his mother’s basement as his love den. In any other film he would have been written as a villain, but in Mottola’s hands he’s more of a tragic figure — the dreamy high-school hero who married young and got old fast. While Connell may be the epitome of cool to his twenty-something co-workers, to the rest of the world he’s pretty much a loser. And while most of the summer employees will head on to bigger and better things, Connell is doomed to always work at Adventureland.
Martin Star plays Joel, a pipe-smoking, Gogol-reading nerd with whom James finds true friendship. Both young men are way too smart to be working at Adventureland, but nonetheless find themselves slaving away for coolie wages. SNL’s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are hilarious, if underused, as the eccentric husband and wife managers of the park.
While “Adventureland” doesn’t sacrifice story for a cheap laugh, the same cannot be said about writer/director Rob McKittrick’s “Waiting,” which capitalizes on every opportunity for cheap gross-out humor. The scene in which Monty demonstrates to Mitch what happens to the meals of rude customers is evidently meant to be disgustingly hilarious, but is really just disgusting. “Waiting” has no clear narrative and is more a string of lame and clichéd vignettes threaded together by the film’s running gag, the Penis game. I’m sure a game that revolves around coming up with clever ways of showing another guy the family jewels and then calling him gay is supposed to be ironic in someway, but mostly it’s just juvenile, offensive and unrelentingly homophobic.
Ryan Reynolds smirks his was way through “Waiting,” throwing out one-liners that are only occasionally funny and displaying none of the subtlety he shows in “Adventureland.” As Dean, Justin Long is evidently supposed to provide the film’s moral center, but his character is so dull that you never really care enough about him to worry that he may be stuck in a dead-end job at the age of 22. And, sadly, Anna Faris is completely wasted in this moronic film. Her one shining moment comes when she cuts Monty down to size, expounding on his many sexual inadequacies, and also calls her co-workers’ behavior “an exercise in retarded homophobic futility,” which pretty much sums up this film as well.
“Waiting” never manages to rise above its teen gross-out comedy formula. While it may hold limited appeal for socially inept 13-year-old boys, everyone else should go and see “Adventureland.” While it doesn’t shy away from lowbrow humor this smart, well-acted and perceptive coming-of-age tour de force balances the raunch with witty dialogue and a good heart. “Adventureland” is quite a ride.