Director Spotlight: Greg Mottola

greg_mottola_0401I love unexpected surprises, who doesn’t? A few nights ago I was at my friends house whom I hadn’t seen in a while and we casually decided to watch Adventureland, expecting a decent background comedy while we caught up. Here was a film that seemed to come and go rather quickly at the box office, and although my interest was always slightly piqued by the fact that it was directed by Greg Mottola, the “director of Superbad, it just wasn’t something I was rushing out to see. Needless to say, before the credits were over conversation had quickly dwindled and our focus was firmly on the second major film by a director who I truly believe can and will go on to do great things.

Superbad instantly registered as one of the funniest movies I have ever seen; and in it’s own odd way one of the truest to the teenager condition since Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. It’s dialogue was like a Judd Apatow film on steroids, characters squeezing every last drop out of their lines, strangling each scene until they’re positive that somebody is laughing. Now this method of comedy can become taxing, but when it’s in the hands of a competent director (this is the reason Apatow’s own comedy’s don’t flounder under their own “look at me” weight) and told with the right actors it can be brilliant.

Jonah Hill and Michael Cera were the perfect comedic duo for the story Mottola was telling in Superbad, add in the hilariously uncomfortable Christopher Mintz-Plasse (who proved his acting chops in the completely underrated Role Models) and you had a dream trio of teenage gross out humor with enough sincerity to make it work. SuperbadBut a lot of the success of that film  had to do with the direction, and Mottola didn’t disappoint. The focus was always on the jokes, notice their is rarely ever an edit in that film where the camera cuts away as a character is telling one: as elaborate as they may be (“I peaked too early, I’m like the Orson Welles of getting pussy!”) Mottola lets the camera rest on them until they finish. Sure, nobody talks like that, but if they did, wouldn’t you want to hear it?

Given his steady handed direction that helped Superbad become an instant comedic classic, it’s really no surprise at how well he has handled a (slightly) more serious story in Adventureland, which he also wrote this time out.

The plot is fairly straightforward, and interestingly enough set in the late 1980’s. James Brennan’s (Jesse Eisenburg) dad has just been demoted at his job, leaving them unable to help him fund his trip across Europe for the summer before he moves to New York in the fall for graduate school. His friend who he was supposed to go on the trip to Europe with gives him a bag of weed to occupy himself with for the summer, as he lights up a joint in front of both their parents (“Won’t they smell it?” “Who them? No they’re clueless”).

Forced to move back to the town he grew up in, and armed with a resume unfit for just about any job, he is forced to get a job working the games at the shoddily run  Adventureland, where he meets a variety of well defined characters, most notably Em, played by Kristen Stewart with a surprising amount of depth. She always looks uncomfortable doing publicity for the unfortunate “Twilight” series, and now it’s obvious why: she knows that franchise is far below her talent, and the lackadaisical look  she usually supplies must be a result of contempt for the material.

James is a virgin, Em definitely isn’t, yet they both see something in each other that they’ve been missing in themselves, and it quickly becomes apparent that their budding interest in each other is the meat of this film. adventureland-1There is also James childhood friend Frigo (Matt Bush), who sports a shirt that claims “I’m Frigo Kapeesh?”, the awkward Joel (Martin Starr, who deserves more praise than I have time to give him here) and the repairman Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds, who proves once again that he can act), a failed rock star who’s claim to fame is that he apparently once “jammed” with Lou Reed.

Now the 1980’s  setting isn’t presented as a gimmick, it seems to be an integral part to the story: aside from the fact that it gives Mottola an excuse display one of the best soundtracks in recent memory with music from Husker Du, The Velvet Underground, Yo La Tengo, and David Bowie among others; it places the characters in a time and place before everybody was in constant communication with each other, further driving home the point that these kids are stuck at a shitty summer job…and that’s that. No escape.

Both Superbad and Adventureland showed a confidence in it’s subject matter, combined with smooth editing and a mature composition not seen in most comedies. The latter especially, is edited with a gentle velocity that mirrors the lazy rush of a crappy summer job. It’s too bad that Miramax didn’t really know how to market Adventureland, as it is much, much more than just a Superbad offshoot, as the adverting suggested. If they had more faith in the material, they could have had a legitimate sleeper hit on their hands.

After the success of Superbad, it would have been easy for Mottola to pick just about any run of the mill comedy, the fact that he chose to wrote and direct his own, combined with an obvious talent and style, proves that he is the real thing. He is currently working on Paul, a film written by and starring Simon Pegg, which also features Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Jason Bateman and Bill Hader among others. I’m excited at the prospect of this film, in which Pegg and Frost’s characters travel across country and find an alien voiced by Seth Rogen at Area 51; but after Adventureland I’ll be more interested to see what he decides to write and direct next, and I hope more people start to take notice. It’s not often that a director comes along that mixes comedy and subtle honesty as well as Greg Mottola, luckily for the rest of us he’s just getting started.

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~ by rozco on October 6, 2009.

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