- The movie.
- The amusement park.
- Disney, exotica, and racism.
1. We'll start with the movie.
"We pay little Malaysian kids 10 cents a day to make these toys. We can't just give them away."
--Joel, defending the fact that the games are rigged.
At some point, while you're still young, you'll probably have a summer where you fall in an approximation of love, wonder where your life is heading, and do some problematic things. This fact has inspired whole genres of films. They tend to be formulaic and uneven. In the early 2000s, they often feature Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg.
Adventureland fared poorly at the box office, despite a fair critical reception. Writer-director Greg Mottola's previous film had been a hit, and the studio marketed this one like Superbadder: the Sequel. It's not. Not even close. This is, I suspect, the film he wanted to make, but he needed a salable teen hit first. Superbad, with its crude gags and teen comedy retreads, sold. Adventureland plays as a more personal, introspective bildungsroman, with slightly darker undertones than most youth-market comedies choose to acknowledge. It has laughs and bad behavior, but plausible characters drive the action, and they don't always get what they want.
Summer has come. It's 1987. Instead of the usual spoiled teenagers, played by twenty-somethings and engaging in behavior typical of the immediate post-teen years, we have actual early twenty-somethings, engaging in behavior typical of the late teens.
James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) plays, of course, a lovable and sensitive nerd who has just completed his degree in literature and plans to travel Europe before doing a Masters at Columbia University. Unfortunately, the plan rather depends upon his parents' money, and they have a lot less of it than they once did. Since his degree hasn't prepared him for financial success, the rather naïve Brennan gets a job running games at a nearby amusement park. His affable personality and a sizable stash of weed allow him to make friends with the obligatory group of colourful characters, including his deranged childhood friend Frigo (Matt Bush), full-time underachiever Joel (Martin Starr), too-slick techie Mike (Ryan Reynolds), party girl Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva— a cross between the younger Madonna and Eliza Dushku), and strong-willed but high-maintenance games girl Em (Kristen Stewart). Presiding over the misfits are assistant managers Paulette (Kristen Wiig) and Bobby (Bill Hader).
James Brennan falls for Em. Em likes him, but she's having a secret affair with married Mike. Lisa P., meanwhile, recognizes Brennan as the best of a dubious lot. The film develops in fairly predictable ways that have some grounding in passable reality and established personalities. Let's face it. Unsettled people often work stupid jobs. Scam artists infest second-rate amusement parks. Attractive people often get hit on and some can't resist turning sleazy. People who wouldn't have spent much time together in high school frequently interact once high school ends. Aimless people often make stupid decisions which have long-term consequences they didn't expect. Our characters have all found themselves in dead end jobs for reasons, and most of them could give you those reasons, if you insisted on asking. Mike the Techie recognizes he works the one place he can look cool. Lisa P. loves the fact of male attention; she doesn't have much else in her life just now. Em recognizes she's doing something that will hurt her and those she loves; she does it anyway. And we should all see that, likable though he may be, Brennan's substance abuse and character weaknesses will cost him. Adventureland charges admission; the characters will bear the debt for some time.
We're not just getting laughs here, though the movie provides a few along the way. Most of these reside in small character moments and lazily witty banter. Joel's defense (quoted at the start of this review) for rigging the games comes to mind. Much of the humour only works in context. When the film strays into Superbad territory, it turns for the worse. I'm still not certain what to make of Frigo, an annoying comic character whose presence in this film only moderately pays off.
Other performances help carry the movie when the script weakens. Eisenberg and Stewart have the laconic chemistry we'd expect from this sort of relationship. I believed in them; I just didn't expect fireworks. Neither does she. Brennan has his hopes, but he clearly lags behind his chronological age. Bill Hader turns in a near-perfect as the manager who has grown to accept and enjoy his cut-rate lot in life. You only have stuffed-banana prizes to give away at the season's end? Add eyes and eye-patches and make pirate bananas!
A note-perfect late-eighties soundtrack propels the lack of action, with period gems from Crowded House, David Bowie, New York Dolls, and others. Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" plays repeatedly over the park's loudspeaker because no stroll around an old-school midway in the latter half of the twentieth century would be complete without the repetitive, loud blare of the specific era's most idiotic and overplayed songs.
The film has more than a little wish-fulfillment. Brennan is a Mary Sue replaying his creator's misspent late youth/early adulthood, hitting more of the right notes this time. The outlook for some of the characters remains uncertain, yet the film also nods to happier times to come. I found Adventureland passably entertaining, but I think its premise, in this relatively untapped setting, could have produced a better movie.
Mottola worked at New York's Adventureland when he was younger. He didn't film there; the venerable park had changed too much since his day, and I doubt the owners were pleased with his depiction of the seedy inner workings. No, they staged much of Adventureland on location at another American amusement institution, Kennywood. But the original Adventureland still does business.
2. The Amusement Park
Back in the 80s, Rolling Stone ran a piece on the anniversary of the Roller Coaster. I don’t have the issue, so I cannot quote directly. The author linked the decline of the roller coaster to the decline of the traditional American sleazy amusement park, with street thugs and losers for employees and rides with names like the "Whirl 'n' Puke." In its place, we've erected theme parks with Presbyterian attendants, names like "Crustacean World," and "wimpy rides" that explain the science behind crystal formation.1
Forget Disney, for now. Adventureland is the more traditional sort of park, though it dates to the theme park era.
Actually, there have been several parks bearing the name. One ran in Illinois from 1961 to 1977. One opened in '73 and continues to run in Iowa, not far from Des Moines. This century witnessed the opening of an Adventureland in (where else?) Dubai. However, the Adventureland that inspired the 2009 film saw its first customers in 1962, in East Farmingdale, New York.
It began modestly. Entrepreneurs Alvin Cohen and Herb Budin purchased several acres and started with a few rides, an arcade, a restaurant, and miniature golf. Over the years, various owners expanded the park with the typical range of rides and games. They even landed the antique automobile ride from the New York World's Fair of ’64-65. Inevitably, themed areas opened, such as Pirate's Cove. Roller Coasters went up and, in the 1990s, a lot of water park rides. It has shown more staying power and adaptability than many other such parks, and one imagines it will survive for some time. Adventureland remakes itself into the typical park of the day. In addition to the eponymous film, it has also appeared in Sweet Liberty (1986) and Music and Lyrics (2007).
Another Adventureland lures tourists to exotic lands in the prototype of the contemporary theme park, Disneyland.
3. Disney, exotica, and racism
I've been to a Disney park once, when I was twelve. The American bicentennial was in full swing. Dad and Mom packed us into the car and we drove across the Ontario-Michigan border and to the American west, taking in the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, San Francisco, Yellowstone Park, and Mount Rushmore. Along the way we saw a zillion small towns (we ate in one that had a population of 100), Las Vegas (a Strip drive-through only), our California relatives, and Disneyland.
By ’76 the park had expanded quite a bit, but it hadn't been remade. I saw pretty much the park Walt designed, a collection of American fantasies which we all shared. Main Street U.S.A. wasn't just nostalgia; it was nostalgia we could still touch. It represented the world my mother's parents reminisced about, shown in an impossibly fair light (my father's parents, Italian immigrants, had a different history). Fantasyland was the faerie tales we read, once upon a time before children's books cared to be multicultural. Tomorrowland was the Future we fully expected would some day arrive, the slick, smooth place where people in tights would reach for the stars in rockets with fins. Frontierland brought to life the American west we all recollected from Gunsmoke episodes and John Wayne movies, with some tips of the coonskin cap to Davy Crockett and tipples to Mark Twain.
Adventureland was the Jungle: Mowgli's India, the Dark Continent of Africa, and uncharted desert isles. Here there be the tikis and tropical birds of 1950s exotica. We were experiencing those foreign lands as the movies had shown them, a blend of mysterious places with jungles and wild animals and brown people. When the park was built it hadn't occurred to the mainstream how racist this casual blending of disparate cultures and geographies could seem. It was only just occurring to us then.
It didn't occur to me at all, when I was twelve. I grew up watching American media; the blend made sense. A row of hut-like building sold third world-style crafts. The Tiki Birds sang-- one of them had a funny Mexican accent. We toured the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse; my sister loved that film when she was a kid. It was a pure vision of something we would ultimately find tainted, the tropics, romanticized through Imperalist eyes and then rendered cutesy by Disney.
The Walt Disney Corporation has remade this land. First they incorporated elements from a variety of successful Disney films, whether they suited the Jungle theme or not: Aladdin, for example. The Swiss Family Robinson's treehouse became Tarzan's, at least for a time. More recently, Disney acquired the rights to reference Indiana Jones, and made the land more of a 1930s colonial fantasy, justifying Disney's original conception with a splash of irony.
Other Disney Adventurelands have had their own flavours. The Walt Disney World Adventureland at first emphasized the Polynesian, but now runs from Caribbean to Aladdin's Arabia. Tokyo Disneyland includes the usual tropical attractions, but it also exotifies America, with elements of New Orleans and Hawaii. Euro-Disneyland takes its cue from European Colonialism, with a Moroccan/Indian feel. Hong Kong Disneyland apparently sticks mainly to The Jungle.2 Western fantasies now belong to the world. The roots and vines of the original spread far.
I bought a wallet there, a leather thing with minor faux tribal markings. It did service until, I think, the end of eighth grade. I couldn't tell you what happened to it.
We put some things aside, or we try. Adventureland looms in our future, when we're children and, for the rest of our life, it haunts our past.
1. If you have the article in question, let me know, and I'll replace my half-recollections with actual quotations and credit the author, whose charming description nailed the dominant types of amusement parks.
2. My description of the newer Disney parks relies heavily on their own official sites, Wiki, and my friend Singularity Girl, who has an unreasonable love of all things Disney.