Sunday, April 26, 2009

I'm Just Asking

Two questions, separate but related:

Q1: Any good reason why the soundtrack to Adventureland hasn't been released? Will it be released? I've been to Best Buy and Borders several times since the film's opening, and it hasn't surfaced. It's not even available on

Q2: Would it have killed HBO and the creators of In Treatment to add some Special Features to the DVD release of Season 1? Would it have killed them to have added any? Nine discs featuring 43 episodes with no extras seems a little ridiculous, particularly with a show that practically invites a dialogue on its performances, production design and subject matter.

I realize the economy is in no great shakes, to the point where perhaps production companies have been eliminating entire marketing departments. And, I realize that some products can be hard sells. Adventureland is a heartfelt coming-of-age story, my generation's Dazed and Confusedso it's no surprise that Miramax's half-assed PR campaign suggested that "the director of Superbad" had made another raucous raunchfest instead. HBO's In Treatment is a different kind of oddity altogether, a half-hour drama airing five nights a week, one with operatic bursts of emotion and long stretches of quietude. It's a difficult commitment at times, but one that can also be wildly addictive.

Adventureland's box-office ($14 million) has been a disappointment. However, an overwhelming majority of those who have seen it appear to like it quite a bit. And a big selling point of the picture is its filled-to-the-brim soundtrack of 80s pop hits. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia, Miramax. It's the Generation X drug of choice.

As for you, HBO, we're only too aware of your general post-Deadwood cluelessness on the potential market for your shows, so let me fill you in. Yes, In Treatment's ratings have been low, but those that are watching are inescapably hooked and want more, more, more. Did it occur to anyone that the devoted fan-base might like to see an extra about the original Israeli series on which the show is based? Or what real psychiatrists think about the show? Or that your star, Gabriel Byrne, has a following of swooning middle-aged women prepared to rend their garments with a zeal that would give Zac Efron's teenyboppers pause? Did it occur to anyone that a carefully packaged DVD set might help increase a show's following -- not to mention actual sales as opposed to Netflix rentals -- as it enters its second season?

I don't mean to sound harsh. It's a miracle when movies or TV series like these see the light of day at all, so those of you involved deserve at least some credit for that. Nevertheless, if you've got the balls to get the product out there, wouldn't it make sense to spend a bit more to get the word out there as well? It's too late to do anything for Adventureland's theatrical run, so I hope a soundtrack (and more) will be ready for the DVD release. I also think it wise to renew In Treatment for a third season (and pay Byrne whatever he wants), and have a special DVD "on-the-couch" edition choc-a-bloc with extras at the ready. I think you owe that much to the fans of both. For what it's worth, I'll say it again: Adventureland is a beautiful movie, and In Treatment a beautiful show.   

Saturday, April 25, 2009


The flawed yet astonishing HBO series In Treatment features a lead character for whom the same adjectives apply. Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) is a psychotherapist with a knack for blurring the lines between the professional and the personal. He conducts his practice not in an office building but rather (in Season 1, now on DVD) the comforting study of his Washington D.C.-based home. He falls in love with one patient; he attacks another when provoked. He helps a teenage girl mend fences with her parents while growing estranged from his own daughter; he guides a bickering couple through marriage counseling as his own 22-year marriage is coming apart. He claims that he has to find something to love in all of his patients before he can treat them. He insists that all of them call him Paul. He joins Al Swearengen and Don Draper as one of the all-time great, fascinating, complex characters in the history of television.

No actor unravels as elegantly as Gabriel Byrne. In earlier screen roles, like the ones in Miller's Crossing and The Usual Suspects, he wielded his persona -- soft-spoken, haggard, with a glimmer of menace -- like a swiftly cutting blade. In Treatment reveals a Byrne who has aged gracefully into middle-age, still as handsome as his eyes are haunted. He also shows something new -- a warmth that burbles up from his deep Irish brogue. At first this staple of modern gangster thrillers seems like an unusual choice for a therapist until Byrne quickly establishes why he's exactly right: he's a great listener. (Ironically, Mark Wahlberg, who shares this quality, is one of the show's producers.) On In Treatment, Byrne makes listening the stuff of great drama.

Adapted from the popular Israeli series Be'Tipul, In Treatment has a premise that's innovative even by HBO's standards. Season 1 follows Paul through nine weeks of sessions with four sets of patients: Laura (Melissa George), a neurotic doctor, arrives on Monday mornings; Alex (Blair Underwood), a troubled Iraq War bomber pilot, shows up Tuesdays; Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a preternaturally gifted teen gymnast, on Wednesdays; and the dysfunctionally married Jake (Josh Charles) and Amy (Embeth Davidtz) brighten the end of Paul's day every Thursday. Each week climaxes with Paul's own session with his therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest), whom he semi-affectionately dubs "The Spider." Paul and Gina share an affectionate yet somewhat tumultuous professional history together (he was originally one of her proteges); and as his unbridled devotion to his patients clashes with her prickly emotional detachment, it doesn't take long to glean that that's about all they share.
It's hard not to make In Treatment sound like a soap opera, perhaps because it partly is. Yet each episode -- all of them only between 20-30 minutes long -- embodies a breathtakingly wide range of topics and genres, colors and tones. The deceptively simple staging represents elements of the theater -- at times, it's like watching a one-act play -- as do many of the performances. (Byrne, Wiest, Underwood and others are accomplished stage actors.) There is a literary layering of characterization via the emotional barriers that Paul and his patients have to break through, in how they reflect each other, or how, in a way, they serve as manifestations of Paul's psyche. A pointillistic quality comes through in the brief prologue that opens each show, or the seemingly trivial knickknacks in Paul's study that often come to serve as totems during the therapy process. And there's Hollywood drama in many of the show's big moments, in the overall thrust of the main plot, in the obstacles that Paul must confront.

Occasionally there is a little too much Hollywood dime-store psychology, mainly in the Laura-centered episodes that kick off each week. I get the idea behind the character, a rational-minded physician in her work who is a self-loathing and reckless in her personal life, a damaged beauty meant to draw out Paul's savior complex. But the two sides never come together (a brief scene on the job might have helped); and Melissa George, among the most mannered of actresses, never met a tic she didn't like. George aims for merely unstable and instead comes across psychotic; whereas Blair Underwood suggests a decent person behind Alex's aggressively unreflective facade. As the mismatched Jake and Amy, Josh Charles (who has come a long way from Dead Poet's Society) and Embeth Davidtz (far from Schindler's List) build an effectively jarring discord, sitting farther apart on Paul's couch the further their relationship deteriorates.
The most magical sessions, though, are between Paul and Sophie. The extraordinary young actress Mia Wasikowska doesn't quite have the physique of a gymnast (the actress actually studied ballet), but she's every inch the troubled teen. A child of divorce who idolizes her distant father while loathing her fragile mother, Sophie's problems appear to be rooted in a particularly sordid social issue; so it's a surprise that the truth, when Paul uncovers it, turns out to be more complex and mysterious. Sophie is an insecure person who feels in control only while on the high beam, and Byrne and Wasikowska pull off a remarkable balancing act between scenes of enormous emotional intensity and passages so quiet you can hear the actors breathing.     

By now Dianne Wiest could probably be nominated for something by sitting on a toilet seat, so it was fairly predictable that she took home an Emmy for playing Gina. Wiest is fine, if a little overstudied (as she often is); she has good moments now and then that don't quite add up to a complete character. I was far more impressed by Michelle Forbes as Paul's disaffected wife, Kate. Forbes is a stunner (whose high eyebrows have unfortunately typecast her in sci-fi fare like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica), yet she's a mix of low self-esteem and percolating fury when Kate joins Paul for sessions with Gina, with a barbed spontaneity that produces some well-timed laughs. (After Paul confesses his feelings for Laura with bunglingly pompous yammerings about "erotic transference," Kate takes this in and blurts out, "Did you fuck her?") But the most acclaimed (as well as justifiably Emmy-winning) performance from last season came from Glynn Turman as Alex's angry, guilt-ravaged father. We had been well-prepared for the character from Alex's sessions, and within one thirty-minute episode Turman conveys a whole personality -- ingratiating, remorseful, terrifying -- that encompasses an entire lifetime. It's a breathtaking turn, one of the finest pieces of acting I've seen in any medium.
With In Treatment struggling in the ratings (Season 2 is currently in progress on HBO), I probably should emphasize more just how funny the series can be at times, such as Sophie's priceless reaction when she learns Paul knows nothing about the Harry Potter books. (For a minute, she becomes a little girl again.) Moments like these provide a respite from the drama, which builds almost imperceptibly until Paul, when his mojo is working, brings it to the surface. In Treatment's creator, Rodrigo Garcia, hasn't received enough credit for how (mostly) seamlessly the show weaves together so many disparate elements -- from humor to pathos -- or for the sublime quality of its direction, music and production design. The miniature wave-machine on Paul's desk also functions as the image over the opening credits, its gentle rocking a lovely metaphor for the sensation one feels at the end of an episode. I've always loved TV shows (and films) that create the illusion of a world that exists beyond the frame, and In Treatment achieves this feat and more. It enables us to see our world with new eyes.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Art of the Deal

"Heart-pounding" is not normally a word I would use to describe The Office, yet by the time Thursday night's episode reached its climax, my adrenaline was in overdrive. The premise: Michael (Steve Carell) and Dwight (Rainn Wilson) engaging in a farcical yet deadly serious battle royale over the latter's top client, a publisher in the general Scranton, PA area. The Office has always made a point (with varying degrees of success) of showing how both characters, despite skirting caricature, are top-notch salesmen; and this was never better orchestrated than the final scene in the publisher's office, where Michael's laid-back schmooziness was matched by Dwight's bursting-through-the-door combativeness. "I burst because I care!" he bellowed.

It's evident from this season -- the show's fifth and best to date -- that the writers care too. "Heavy Competition" was, self-contained, a solid episode. What made it resonate as strongly as other episodes of late was how deftly it wove together several plot strands from earlier in the year. Season 5 began with Michael finding and losing the love of his life, HR rep Holly (Amy Ryan),  who was transferred to another branch after Dunder-Mifflin boss David Wallace (Andy Buckley) discovered their relationship. In addition to a broken heart, Michael then had his conscience quashed after Wallace (with Dwight's urging) talked him into conning a competitor --a local family-run paper business -- into handing over a list of their clients. (A moment in a recent episode where Michael learned of the family business's demise was both funny and heartbreaking.) All this led to the tipping-point, when new hard-ass supervisor Charles Minor (Idris Elba) interfered with Michael's free-wheeling managerial style and pulled the plug on his 15th anniversary party. Michael abruptly quit and, joined by the equally disillusioned-for-different-reasons Pam (Jenna Fischer), founded the "Michael Scott Paper Company," currently residing in the basement of the same office building, directly beneath Dunder-Mifflin's men's room.

What makes The Office so gratifying is its shunning of melodramatics. Momentous changes happen, but they're internal shifts of character, and Michael's have been all of a piece this season (and beautifully played by Steve Carell), leading up to a storyline where he's forced to temper his least appealing qualities (namely laziness and a needy desperation to be loved) and show us the cunning salesman within. For most the year, Pam was the muted half of her relationship with Jim (John Krasinski), until her ballsy-foolhardy decision to leave with Michael (seemingly spontaneous but also prepared for by her flunking out of art school at the season's start) suddenly made her more interesting. It's been fun watching Pam continue to serve as his-girl-Friday to Michael while still negotiating conditions of employment (she wants to be in sales) and dueling with the prodigal Ryan (B.J. Novak) in a kind of micro-office politics. "Once I make that first photocopy," she astutely observed, "then I'm the secretary again."

"Heavy Competition" was deeply pleasurable despite being one of the few episodes this year to make little use of the show's splendid ensemble. The only subplot, a prank involving Jim tricking the recently cuckolded, misogynistic Andy (Ed Helms) into thinking his engagement with Pam was on the rocks, was relatively uninteresting until the payoff with Jim dialing down the smugness and assuring Andy that he'll find somebody someday. (Most people I know would have stopped with "Pam and I are very happy together.") And the Michael v. Dwight slugfest was a joy to behold, a great showcase not only for Carell but Rainn Wilson, whose overheated Dwight, a friend noted, boils down every situation to a black-and-white medieval battle. (My friend then pointedly paused and deadpanned, "Why does that sound familiar?") It's to the writers' ingenuity (this script credited to Ryan Koh, though the whole team presumably chips in) that they made Dwight's closing sales-pitch to the publisher sound intelligent and persuasive, and then let him hang himself anyway, with an inspired twist involving a set of stolen color-coded Rolodex cards that revealed the fine line between Michael's brilliance and stupidity.

With Season 5's homestretch in sight, most of The Office's viewership assumes that the upstart Michael Scott Paper Company will return to the Dunder-Mifflin fold. Enduring television shows always flirt with change only to revert to the comforting familiarity of the status-quo. Yet I'm not so sure there's not another destiny in mind, with Michael doing something we've rarely seen before: He's winning.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Anderson Files - Coda (For Now)

Jamie Rich has put up a well-written analysis of Bottle Rocket, the first feature film by Wes Anderson, over at Criterion Confessions. Funnily enough, I just watched this again a few days ago myself -- it'd been several years since the last time -- and my response was pretty much the same: It's a likable piffle of a debut, with ingratiatingly easygoing banter between the Wilson bro's (Luke and Owen, though not playing siblings in the movie); a brief, iconic supporting turn from James Caan; typically dense depictions of minorities (Luke's love interest, a Hispanic maid played by Lumi Cavazos, is given zero personality but plenty of salsa music to herald her appearances); and a kick-ass soundtrack. Bottle Rocket came out in '96, when Tarantino Fever was reaching its zenith, and so its plot involving wannabe criminals was given idiotically pointless labels like "Reservoir Geeks!" by critics, only to be later overcompensated by Martin Scorsese declaring it one of the best films of the decade. (C'mon, Marty.) The crime elements in Bottle Rocket, while mostly fun, are secondary to its friendly vibe and, at its best, melancholy regard for the end of its characters' youth.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Geek Orthodox: Musings on the Unholy Trinity of Filmmakers, Their Critics, and Their Fans

You know how, every once in awhile, a movie comes along that hits you right where you live, and inspires such intense affection that you find it difficult to respond to negative criticism about it in a rational way? This is one of those movies for me.
--Matt Zoller Seitz, in a comment (scroll down) about Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, at The House Next Door.

But you do respond rationally, Matt. You address two things in your comment that I suspect will be lost on some: 1) a discussion of performance; and 2) an acknowledgment of flaws. Both, for me, are a large part of what's missing from a pervasive strain of film analysis, the kind that tips over into auteur-worship.

For as long as I've loved movies, I can't remember ever adoring the work of a particular filmmaker for an extended length of time. My man-crush on Spielberg fizzled sometime in the late-80s with Last Crusade, Always, and Hook; and a brief infatuation with Soderbergh in the 90s ended abruptly with a cold splash of Oscar Bait called Erin Brockovich. Since both episodes, I've liked some of the efforts of each director and disliked others, but I always go into their films the same as I do with anyone else's -- hopeful and open, but not blind to the prospect of failure.

Failure is, evidently, not an option for legions of fans of contemporary filmmakers. My first significant encounter with this was in the late-90s with regard to television-auteur Joss Whedon, whose Buffy the Vampire Slayer I had recently praised in a piece for The Chronicle Review (which can also be perused here) right before a sixth season I found dismayingly atrocious. Yet on one of the show's many online forums, its defenders did not take well to anything less than unanimous praise. Rather than responding rationally, they tied themselves in rhetorical knots justifying questionable plot developments, made appeals to emotion, and trotted out straw men. (My favorite gambit was something along the lines that young adulthood is a bad experience, and that therefore Whedon and his creative team had devised a brilliant metaphor in deliberately making watching the series a bad experience too.) Jamie Rich's review of The Life Aquatic isn't nearly so egregious; there is a genuine thought process behind the author's passion. Yet still it reflects a trend I find increasingly troubling-- a blurring of the lines between film criticism and fanboyism.

The first thing that strikes me about the Rich piece on Life Aquatic is, for all its length, a complete absence of discussion about (and seeming lack of interest) in actors. This is pretty much the case in his pieces on Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums as well, strange for a trio of films with marvelous ensembles. Or maybe not, considering the argument that Wes Anderson, the director of all three, fits in the Kubrickian tradition of caring less about actors than cinematography and production design. This frequent criticism of Kubrick was always somewhat unfair, as it is toward Anderson: what David Edelstein once wrote about the Coen brothers -- "They love them some weirdos" -- also applies to Anderson's palpable affection for eccentrics in all his pictures. Yet all three filmmakers (or, counting both Coens, four) give the impression of treating their characters as pieces to be moved across a chess board, a valid worldview but one that their fans generally refuse to challenge or even address. Essays like Rich's eagerly talk about everything else, namely all the rich thematic material and visual motifs, as though these are evident without the need for effective actors to serve as conduits between the director and his audience. While I suppose it's possible to achieve such a connection, I'm more inclined to agree with Clarke Peters' Detective Lester Freamon from The Wire, who astutely noted in an early episode that "all the pieces matter."

Additionally, you'd get the impression from admirers of Anderson (and other auteurs) that the guy is incapable of making a mistake. Nary a single flaw is highlighted in any of Rich's pieces on Life Aquatic, Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore -- also rather odd given the volatility of art, its near impossibility of perfection. Often young critics appear to believe that addressing a subject's failings weakens their arguments (though many veteran critics seem to think this too). Matt's same aforementioned comment proves, however, that an assessment of flaws strengthens the writer's position because it allows room for nuance.

Steven Santos, another regular commenter at The House Next Door, has forcefully spoken against the lack of nuance in contemporary criticism. I concur with his argument, because the flip-side of every gushing mash-note is a brutal pummeling. Both can be fun to write; but without variance the end result is unflinching extremism, with no room for the kind of discussion and debate that characterizes the Internet at its best.

A recent "Quote of the Day" at The House (again, scroll down) featured Ted Williams' observation that "Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer." Five-out-of-ten might be an accurate assessment of a great movie director, as Pauline Kael observed in her review of Images, one of Robert Altman's early-70s failures. Altman was very prolific at the time, cranking out a new movie nearly every year; and Kael noted in her negative review that he was nonetheless batting "an astonishing fifty percent."

With a handful of films to his credit, I would rate Anderson's track record as about the same: 2-2-1. I've liked two of his movies (Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums), disliked two others (Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited) and found his first effort (Bottle Rocket) a promising trifle. What's fascinating about his work are the polarizing reactions it receives -- the vigor with which his detractors try to dismiss him (especially the Paulettes, who still resent his 1999 account about meeting Kael), as well as the sense that others can't seem to agree on which of his movies are good and which are bad.

These are signs of a filmmaker worth discussing. I just wish that more of the participants in the discussion -- whether fans or detractors of Anderson or any other director -- were less entrenched in their positions and more open to what Glenn Kenny expressed about the late David Foster Wallace. "There’s always this kind of doubling-back, always a reexamination of his position," Kenny said. "....not as an attempt to undercut anything, so much as it really is a search, a quest."

Time to get off our knees and leave the temple. Make a distinction between geeks and gods.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Grrl Power

Often great actors are at their most interesting when they're right on the cusp of stardom, before fame and prestige and Oscar Fever go to their heads. Think Sean Penn in Fast Times, Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential, Tom Hanks in Joe vs. the Volcano, Philip Seymour Hoffman's early work for Paul Thomas Anderson. Now think Emily Mortimer, the fine British actress starring as an American do-gooder unwittingly embroiled in a criminal plot abroad in the crackerjack thriller Transsiberian. Mortimer's Jessie no sooner completes a humanitarian mission in China with her husband Roy (Woody Harrelson) when they bump into a pair of likable yet shady drifters, Carlos and Abby (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara), while taking the long way home on the Transsiberian Railroad through Russia. Roy's earnestness is offset by Jessie's repressed compulsions, which spill over in a remarkable scene where Mortimer makes a decision that has consequences, and then another one right after that, all the while conveying six or seven emotions at once.

To reveal more would spoil the fun. I will only suggest that it's the kind of sequence that was Hitchcock's specialty -- when festering psychosexual tensions propel the grander machinations of the plot -- and the director of this film, Brad Anderson, pulls it off so well he now joins P.T. and Wes as the third Anderson working today with the potential to make terrific movies. I'm still not won over by digital filmmaking, but Anderson (with the cinematographer Xavi Gimenez) smartly uses it in the same way as film would likely be employed: to take advantage of his locales, build suspense and develop character, rather than uglifying the atmosphere (the wintry landscapes, especially one with a deserted church, are evocative) or jiggling the camera to make us constantly aware of its presence.

At the expense of his own ego, Anderson is a director out to serve his actors, and even when the plot teeters on preposterous they come through in a pinch. Harrelson, who can be either very good or very bad, is shrewdly cast against type as the naive, well-meaning Roy, while Ben Kingsley, as a morally ambiguous Russian police officer who hops on the train, finally remembers that menace can be more effective in a lower key. But this is Mortimer's show. Gradually building a solid resume for the last several years, in work as varied as Match Point to the new Pink Panther movies to Lars and the Real Girl to a few episodes of 30 Rock(she'll also be in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island later this year), her potential for stardom snaps into focus here. Best enjoy her now, while she's better than anyone named Winslet, Jolie or Streep.

At the moment I'll take Anna Faris over any of them too. Her comic star turn in The House Bunny, playing a bubble-headed blonde booted out of the Playboy mansion, only to wind up as the house-mother of a group of hopeless wallflowers in the worst sorority on a college campus, makes a limp comedy worth watching, if only to see what Faris will say or do next. With few variations, The House Bunny follows the Legally Blonde template (and it should, being written by the same screenwriters) as the dumb-bunny lead gives her girls a makeover while simultaneously attempts to transform herself into an intellectual in order to impress a brainiac frat boy (son-of-Tom Colin Hanks). Faris put gloriously loopy spins on lines like the one where she informs her proteges that "the eyes are the nipples of the face," but my favorite bit was when she unwisely mimics Marilyn Monroe's seductive pose over a manhole cover in The Seven Year Itch, gets her legs singed, and breathlessly exclaims,"Who knew steam could be so hot?"

Sunday, April 5, 2009

He Got Game

Early in Adventureland, the best movie in years about the travails of growing up, a twentyish Oberlin College graduate named James (Jesse Eisenberg) begins his first day on the job at the titular amusement park in his hometown of Pittsburgh (the year is 1987). An all-around bright guy and sensitive soul (read: virgin) whose parents' economic fortunes have taken a Reagan-era downturn, James desperately needs to make some summer cash before starting graduate school at Columbia in the fall, and finds himself at the one establishment willing to look past his overqualifications. He learns that Adventureland's dispirited young working stiffs, who spend most of their interminable days drinking booze and smoking pot, are divvied up into operating either "Rides" or "Games." Although James angles to join the ostensibly sexier "Rides" division, his new boss (Bill Hader) sizes him up and says, "You look more like a 'Games' guy to me."

It's no overstatement that Greg Mottola, who wrote and directed the picture, knows this terrain the way John Ford knew Monument Valley. He doesn't push the pop-culture references, instead allowing the elements (clothes, music, language) to build organically, and he skillfully weaves the social frictions of a blue-collar town (between rich and poor, Catholics and Jews) into the amusement park's fragmented environs.

Yet Pittsburgh is also a city linked by bridges, and James finds a tenuous connection with Em (Kristen Stewart), a lovely but troubled "Games" girl and NYU undergrad who is having a surreptitious summer fling with Connell, Adventureland's slightly older -- and slightly married -- maintenance man (and I never thought I would write these words) well-played by Ryan Reynolds. James's emotional directness and vulnerability simultaneously lures and frightens Em, and unwittingly attracts the interest of the park's reigning Madonna-wannabe, Lisa P. (a wild breakthrough performance by the former Russian Olympic gymnast Margarita Levieva).

Like all good filmmakers, Mottola understands that the way to make a predictable set-up seem fresh and surprising is to emphasize the journey more than the destination, and to give the audience capable guides leading the way. I've seen Eisenberg in three films now, and he's been remarkable in each of them. In Roger Dodger, his fresh-faced naivete effortlessly won over the babes his ladies-man uncle labored in pursuing, whereas in The Squid and the Whale he fearlessly portrayed an obnoxious teen intellectual who couldn't get a grip on his own pretentions. His James in Adventureland is a deluxe combo of the two, a young man whose innocence has some rough edges (he becomes the park's unofficial marijuana distributor) yet whose cynicism is undercut by a kind of dogged hopefulness. Eisenberg finds an ideal partner in the raven-haired Stewart. I missed her big splash in last year's teenage-vampire smash Twilight; but here, as a darker version of Linda Cardinelli's Lindsay Weir from the also-'80s-set 1999 TV series Freaks and Geeks (at one point even wearing an identical green Army flak jacket), she makes Em's conflicting emotions achingly tactile.

At least one other review has compared Adventureland to early Cameron Crowe, and if Mottola can't seem to flesh out his grown-up characters beyond caricatures (as Crowe did with Frances McDormand in Almost Famous and John Mahoney in Say Anything), his sensibility is just as warm, his worldview as expansive. This is evident in a deeply funny scene where James takes Lisa P. on a date to a fancy restaurant (a clear homage to a similar set-piece in the Crowe-scripted Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and both fumble to a near-connection despite their disparate backgrounds and interests. Mottola also has Crowe's virtue (and occasionally a weakness) in refusing to pass judgment on a character who would normally be the bad guy. Reynolds' Connell is a kindred spirit to Matthew McConaughey's Wooderson, the fading football star in Dazed and Confused (and that film's director, Richard Linklater, another obvious influence on Mottola), but who comes to embody even more pathos when we learn that his mystique is largely unearned. (Connell is an aspiring musician who claims to have once jammed with Lou Reed.) Unlike Jeremy Sisto's tiresome cartoon of an adulterous husband in Waitress, Reynolds never pushes for effect. There's pain and disappointment etched across his face, and the uneasy friendship he establishes with James -- a serious competitor for Em's affections -- is genuine in a way that I Love You, Man's facile depiction of male-bonding never comes close to reaching.

As Crowe and Linklater eventually accomplished, Mottola is growing more skilled behind the camera. I wasn't a big fan of the non-McLovin passages of Mottola's Superbad, but it's clear that he used the success of that picture as cache to make a more personal film here. (One which, like Say Anything and Dazed and Confused, may not be an initial hit, but I predict will build an ardent following over time.) He creates an authentic theme-park locale, finding beauty behind the gaudy surface tackiness. There's a gorgeous image of James and Lisa P. lounging hopelessly stoned on a Teacups ride with the city fading to dusk on the horizon behind them, and another where Em and James watch fireworks burst overhead on a Fourth of July evening. In scene after scene Mottola evokes emotion without sentiment, memory without nostalgia. And he has enough confidence not to oversell the movie's theme: that one can still come to find a place in life, even with the games rigged and the rides dangerous.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The 10

Jason recently tagged me with a current movie-blog meme to name my all-time 10 favorite movie characters. Harder than it sounds, and I'll probably smack my forehead later over somebody I've left out, but let's forego the throat-clearing and have it, shall we?

Here are the 10:

10. Marge Gunderson (Fargo). Unlike Happy-Go-Lucky's Poppy, here's an optimist do-gooder who doesn't wear out her welcome. A tireless worker, on the side of justice, and nobody's fool.

9. C.D. Bales (Roxanne). My favorite Steve Martin character and a perfect amalgam of his talents as physically and mentally agile comedian, poet, acrobat and romantic.

8. Faye (Chungking Express). Dizzy charmer one critic compared to Kate Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. Boogies to "California Dreamin'. Breaks into your apartment and cleans while you're away. What's not to love?

7. Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers-version only). A hopeless klutz desperately trying to maintain his dignity, and a moron who always solves the crime despite himself.

6. H.I. McDunnough (Raising Arizona). Normally can't stand Nicolas Cage, but this character is one of his best: a charming, drawling, hapless convenience store robber who will do anything to make his wife happy and wouldn't hurt a fly.

5. Indiana Jones (pre-Crystal Skull). Not a superhero or superspy, but an archeology professor-cum-roguish adventurer with a sense of humor and history, who ultimately does the right thing without ever being haughtily noble about it.

4. Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction). A murderous Bible-quoting hit-man who finally figures out what the quote really means as he struggles against every instinct to spare another person's life.

3. Chili Palmer (Get Shorty). This movie-buff gangster who fulfills his destiny as a Hollywood producer is the unruffled epitome of cool.

2. Jean Harrington/'Lady Eve Sidwich' (The Lady Eve). Savvy con artist who falls for one of her marks, then after being made, seeks revenge and falls for him all over again. Take note, ladies, her cold-open for how to meet a man: she trips him.

1. Ben Braddock (The Graduate). My sentimental favorite for lots of reasons, but now primarily to go against the trendy backlash that he's an empty vessel. Quite the contrary: he's merely foolhardy and not fully formed, impulsive and misunderstood. He may turn out just like his parents, but anyone who knows how to wield a giant crucifix as a weapon still leaves enough room for hope.

Thursday, April 2, 2009