From this month’s nonstop reporting on Michael Jackson’s death, to the obsessive 24/7 coverage of O. J. Simpson’s “Trial of the Century” in the ’90s, it seems that this country can never get enough of a juicy celebrity story. Critics decry this preoccupation as voyeurism. But perhaps there’s a more commendable explanation for our fascination. After all, it’s often only while in the throes of such celebrity spectacles that the public is able to engage in productive debates about some of the most important issues, dilemmas, and philosophical questions that we face.
For example, would you or your friends have talked about animal rights a couple of years ago had NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s dogfighting not come to light? For a while, it was the top discussion topic on sports radio: the intense coverage made animal abuse a more salient topic than any ad campaign PETA could have come up with. Or how about Michael Phelps’s bong hits, which helped bring the legalization debate back into the public square…
The on and off switch, as well as the channel changer works on my TV, so if I get sick of the coverage its at least partly my fault. Miller has a point about how the public digests and acts on the issues that evolve out of celebrity scandals ( that applies to political ones as well). Some deeper ethical issues are squeezed in once we get past the initial shock factor. In everyday conversation we generally don’t bring up the philosophy of ethics, but we’ll talk about how cruel it is to pit dogs against each other for entertainment and profit. Its like the controversy over parents sneaking things like pureed carrots into their kids brownie, a way to trick them into having more healthy food in their diet. Comic books and mainstream Hollywood movies have been doing the same thing for years. Few people will get excited about reading Immanuel Kant, but when Spiderman struggles with being a man of reason fighting the irrational, the public is getting their pop culture brownie laced laced with Kant.
Making movies is tough in terms of imagination, of coming up with a new take on subject matter that has already been done a few hundred times. Almost all films fall into some type of genre. Which category – romantic comedies, horror, sci-fi, detective thrillers, westerns, war dramas or coming of age films have been most abused or most satisfying is up for debate. Hollywood has certainly abused the coming of age film. They too often resort to crude humor and juvenile sight gags. Once in a while a movie like Adventureland does for coming of age movies what The Matrix did for sci-fi, you haven’t quite been there, done that. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is the ostensible lead and Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds) is something of a throwback, a thread to the anti-heroes of the fifties and sixties, the cool good looking guy that played in a band and seemed to get all the girls(Reynolds does a great job as usual). Yet Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart) is the character around which the plot turns. Writer and director Greg Mottola is just too smart not to realize that fact when he was writing the script and making the movie so I suspect that in order to appease the executives at Miramax or their advertising department, gave the film a traditional facade – boys coming of age are interesting. Girls coming of age are chic flicks – The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Since movies, detective novels and birthday parties are the few areas of life where being tricked is actually encouraged, watching Adventureland is just that much more interesting for the veneer. If the plot simply relied on the James narrative, a veteran movie goer could have been able to approximate the ending in the first ten minutes. Most of which is devoted to the back story of how a comparative literature major ends up working in an amusement park. As the scenes play out we recognize many of our own experiences, but since all the characters are keeping little secrets that are slowly unveiled, we’re kept a little off balance, not sure exactly where the narrative is headed. Most of the mystery and the possible outcomes for the lead characters are dependent on Em ( Emily). Em, thank you Mr. Mottola, is not a passive plot device. She has conflicted feelings and we get to know the whys as the story unfolds. Despite being smart and wise enough to know the answer to where one relationship is headed, she delays the inevitable. No one is invulnerable, and strength is not the state of being immune to feelings. To have made Em into a cardboard cut out of the female version of the male archetypes, of which Mike reminds us, would have been to deprive the viewer of a more fully realized character. So when Em, who unlike Mike, is genuinely complicated might seem to be hedging her relationship bets its not cold but understandable. As she juggles her demons she’s hesitant. Is she working toward something better or just making her emotional life even more problematic. Maybe the best trick of all is what Em or rather Kristen Stewart is able to convey between the lines of the script. Being bright and strong does not protect against life’s complications. If the issues she and James had to face were all about something logical they could easily come up with answers. Em and James both happen to work the amusement park games, which are all rigged. Its tough to say whether that was supposed to be screaming symbolism or just some clever irony. Either way the games, worn old rides, 80s music and quite a bit of pot smoking add to the spirit of the movie.
Adventureland is billed as a comedy, but that is a little deceptive too. Its more a dramedy. There is no mistaking the scenes with Paulette(Kristen Wiig) and Bobby(Bill Hader) as the park owners, surreal and funny. In a few seconds they can go from dry humor to crazy slap-stick and back again.