Class, observed The L’s Nicolas Rapold in his review, is a crucial subtext in Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, as newly minted liberal artist Jesse Eisenberg has to pass up a European vision quest (and, eventually, grad school) to work in a sticky-tarmaced Pennsylvania amusement park. My colleague also suggests that “the movie as a whole has two sides” — the broad comedy represented by “Apatovian dick-slapper Tommy (Matt Bush)”, and a more interesting romance with “a real sense for disappointment.” All due respect, but I think that Adventureland‘s class issues and sense of disappointment — the things that, along with its soundtrack, make it so much more than the I-Love-the-80s coming-of-age farce it could have been — are actually best exemplified by that dick-slapper. If you’ll follow me to the other side of this here jump, I’ll explain why.
This dick-slapper (he prefers the term “sack-smack”, actually) is named Tommy Frigo, he’s played by one Matt Bush, and he is, apparently, James’ (the Eisenberg character) next-door neighbor and (very. early.) childhood best friend. As played by the giddy, gymnastic Bush he comes off, in his teasing of James, something like the tight-wound Eisenberg’s prankish, unrestrained id — not just smacking James’ sack but loudly pointing out his erection, or pissing on the other side of a window James looks out of.
Frigo is James’ tormentor, and there’s something in the way Frigo — with his tacky headbands and someday-to-be-retro slogan t-shirts, and his glue-sniffing puppydog eagerness — is able to so consistently humiliate his Oberlin-grad friend.
Adventureland is in part a movie in which upward cultural mobility — James wants to leave his white-collar suburban parents’ house for urban bohemia and creative-class employment — is brought to a screeching halt by the undercutting of the middle class (James’ dad loses his job). So James ends up at the “purgatorial” (perfect word, Nic) Adventureland, among the very people and class signifiers (like incurious kitschy Top 40 pop) that he was trying to escape.
With every crude, adolescent smack to the sack, then, Frigo reminds his old friend James where he came from — and where, for the moment, he’s stuck. It hurts James to be reminded. And in an economic climate where many liberal arts degree-holders are finding it impossible to find the kind of exalted work they thought they were signing up for, it hurts to watch, too.