Our multiplexes need another period coming-of-age flick about as much as the nation needs another banking industry bailout, yet Adventureland proves to be a modest surprise. For that, thank the efforts of a talented ensemble and a screenplay that mostly steers clear of the usual gross-out gags that have come to define this sub-genre in modern times.
Jesse Eisenberg, who appears to be a Michael Cera wannabe until you remember that he's been around as long as the Juno actor (and more prominently in the early years, thanks to key roles in Roger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale), stars as James, whose best-laid plans to attend grad school are dismantled by a sudden lack of funds. Bummed, he's forced to take a minimum-wage job working the game booths at the Pittsburgh amusement park Wonderland. He spends an exorbitant amount of time smoking pot and goofing around with his co-workers, but what really makes the gig endurable is his burgeoning relationship with a fellow employee, the pretty if often moody Em (Twilight's Kristen Stewart). What James doesn't know, however, is that Em is involved with the park's older, married handyman (Ryan Reynolds), a situation that becomes difficult to manage once James and Em start spending more time together. Adventureland was written and directed by Superbad's Greg Mottola, and he frequently has trouble nailing the 1980s milieu in which the film is set: Some scenes are visually so nondescript that it's easy to forget the time frame and assume the movie takes place in the here and now. Other bits hammer the 80s connection home in marvelous fashion -- especially amusing is the fact that Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" blares from the park sound system on a continuous loop, much to the increasing irritation of James and his friends.Eisenberg is exemplary as the nerdy intellectual whose sensitivity and demeanor attract rather than repel women -- here's that rare youth flick where it's actually believable that the geek gets the girl -- while Stewart again demonstrates her standing as one of our most promising young actresses by ably tackling the script's most complicated role. The supporting parts are also well-cast, offering familiar character types (flirtatious party girl, vulgar comedian, etc.) yet investing them with enough personality to offset any sense of deja vu. As for Adventureland itself, it's presented as a second-rate amusement park, certainly not anybody's idea of a choice spot for a first date. The same, however, cannot be said of the movie, an inviting entertainment that's clearly worth the admission price.
MONSTERS VS. ALIENS
With a title like Monsters vs. Aliens, the latest animated effort from DreamWorks sounds as if it could match all those Pixar gems in terms of emerging as a toon tale equally likely to entertain the adults as the small fry. After all, what film-lovin' grown-up, specifically one weaned on a steady diet of 50s fantasy flicks playing all night on late-night TV, could resist a movie guaranteed to be crammed with more inside jokes than anybody could reasonably hope to absorb during the initial viewing? Unfortunately, Monsters vs. Aliens doesn't come close to fulfilling what appeared to be its lot in (cinematic) life. Sure, there are plenty of bright colors and wacky characters and slapstick antics to amuse the children, but most adults will be left wanting.The title itself points out the film's failing. The monsters, here reconfigured as the good guys, are all based on creatures found in classic sci-fi romps of the 1950s. Sweet Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a bride-to-be who gets super-sized to enormous proportions (hence her new name of Ginormica), is a nod to Attack of the 50 Foot Woman; the gelatinous mound B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) is based on The Blob; Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) obviously parodies The Fly; the amphibious Missing Link (Will Arnett) is an offshoot of Creature from the Black Lagoon; and the silent Insectosaurus seems patterned on the behemoths once found stomping around Japan (Mothra, Godzilla, etc.). These creations are amusing enough, but what of the alien half of the equation? Where's the savory mix that would pay homage to the E.T.s found in The Thing (from Another World), The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth -- heck, even The Monolith Monsters? Instead, we get one tiresome extraterrestrial megalomaniac (Rainn Wilson), a clear indication that inspiration ran out long before this promising premise was saturated. The film's visual scheme is inventive, and parents feverishly seeking kid-friendly life lessons should appreciate the usual message about how everybody should be comfortable in their own skin and also not be hasty in judging others. But for a movie that had the potential to knock the genre out of this world, the pleasant but predictable Monsters vs. Aliens remains too earthbound for its own good.
Duplicity is a jet-setting romp that proves to be as bright as it is brainy. Writer-director Tony Gilroy, flush from his Michael Clayton success, retains that film's examination of corporate malfeasance yet replaces the sense of dread with a sense of style. After all, when a movie showcases a Caribbean hotel where rooms cost $10,000 per night, it's clear that the protagonists won't be cut from the same cloth as us po' folks who have to worry about trifling matters like soaring unemployment rates and obstructionist Republican Congressmen. Indeed, the leads are played by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, the sort of high-wattage movie stars so glamorous that it's easy to believe even their bath tissues are Armani-designed. She's former CIA agent Claire Stenwick; he's ex-MI6 operative Ray Koval. Having both left their jobs to take lucrative assignments with rival corporations (the company CEOs are played in amusing fashion by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti), both Claire and Ray end up pooling their talents in order to swindle both companies and steal the formula for a new cosmetic product that will revolutionize the industry. But as they work overtime to insure they're always one step ahead of their respective companies' key personnel (not a dummy among them), Claire and Ray each wonder whether they can really trust the other person. If there's a fault with Duplicity, it's that Gilroy relies far too heavily on fastbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks to the point that the first half-hour is often impenetrable -- telling the story in linear fashion would have still produced enough narrative twists to keep audiences happily engaged. Fortunately, as the movie continues, plot basics become more digestible, and it all pans out with a climactic "gotcha" that should invoke happy memories of The Sting. Granted, as far as screen couples go, Roberts and Owen are no Newman and Redford, but they're compatible enough to provide Duplicity with the requisite shot of A-list aptitude.
It's not that writer-director James Gray makes bad movies. It's just that it's difficult to remember anything about the movies he makes -- they're so low-key, they make similarly quiet and brooding pictures look as rambunctious as Transformers by comparison. 2007's We Own the Night starred Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg and had something to do with bickering brothers on opposite sides of the law. 2000's The Yards also starred Phoenix and Wahlberg and somehow involved an ex-con with good intentions being dragged back into a life of crime. And all I recall about 1994's Little Odessa is that, uh, it included actors and buildings and perhaps a few props. Two Lovers seems as likely as Gray's previous pictures to fizzle away, Alka Seltzer-style, until there's little left but a faint aftertaste. Marginally interesting but not exactly successful, this Brooklyn-set drama casts Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, who lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) after a failed suicide attempt sparked by a romantic fallout. The folks try to steer Leonard into a relationship with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a business associate, but even as Leonard tentatively tries to make a go of it with this insecure woman, he finds himself drawn to his new neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a self-described basketcase who's having an affair with a married man (Elias Koteas). To his credit, Gray doesn't try to sugarcoat any of the relationships in the picture -- as in real life, lonelyhearts are frequently drawn to people they should probably avoid, and declarations of love are often merely covers for ugly truths. But crucially, Gray and his leading man never make us care for Leonard Kraditor, nor do they find ways of making him interesting. Conversely, Sandra and especially Michelle are also flawed, yet the actresses inhabiting the parts add nuance to their characters' imperfections. Phoenix, on the other hand, merely seems distracted, as if he was already looking ahead to his new career as the music man.