Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Adventureland

Review Date:  4-17-09
Release Date:  4-3-09
Runtime:  107 min.
Period: 1987
Costume Designer: Melissa Toth

I loved this movie.  Loved, loved, loved this movie.  I saw Superbad (Director Greg Mottola’s last film) and thought it was funny, but Adventureland trumps it handily with its heart and wit.  This is not a movie with gross-out jokes; this is a movie with layers, depth, and a smoking soundtrack.  Adventureland proves that Superbad was more than a contact high with Judd Apatow.  Greg Mottola tosses the plastic ring, and it lands squarely around the neck of the storytelling milk bottle.  With Adventureland, he easily wins the giant-ass panda.

It is the summer of 1987 in Pittsburgh, and sweet, gawky, nervous young virgin James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated college.  He has been accepted for grad school at Columbia University in New York, where he plans to pursue his dream of travel writing via a journalism degree.  As a first foray, he has planned a summer trip to Europe with his wealthy pot-smoking college friend Eric (Michael Zegen).  Those summer plans are quickly put on hold when young Brennan’s father announces that he’s been transferred in his company, and as a result is making less money.  Bottom line: there will be no summer Europe trip for young Brennan.

More than that bottom line, his parents can no longer afford the Ivy League tuition for his post-graduate studies.  Needing money, young Brennan submits his resume around town, and it seems the only place that will hire him is Adventureland, the local lowbrow, low-rent amusement park.

Young Brennan is hired as a “game guy” – and made to wear the requisite Games-Games-Games t-shirt as his uniform.  He is shown the ropes (and let in on the deception of the park’s promising games) by Joel (Martin Starr).  Everything at Adventureland is rigged, it seems.

He meets Em (Kristen Stewart), an NYU student and fellow “game girl” who seems to have had a few too many angst and ennui cocktails, and Brennan is soon smitten.  She gives him a ride home after work one day, and they bond over their disdain for corporate culture and love of alternative music.  Em hosts a party for the Adventureland carnies at her home when her dad is out of town for the weekend.  What Brennan doesn’t know is that she is also seeing (and sleeping with) married, older musician-turned-Adventureland-repairman Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who claims to have jammed with Lou Reed.  And it seems that in this movie, all of our principal players worship at the altar of Lou Reed and/or the Velvet Underground, so that tidbit is not insignificant.  At the party, it appears that Em is also interested in Brennan, which gets his attention, so to speak.  At the party, we also find out that Em’s mother passed away, and her dad remarried a woman she hates.

Enter Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the eighties version of sex-on-a-stick.  Lisa P. has returned to Adventureland to work for the summer after her father lost his job.  Every Y-chromosome at the park has the hots for Lisa P., and she loves the attention.  She seems dumb and vacuous, but it doesn’t matter, because all of the guys (even Brennan) are held hostage, paralyzed by her charms.

One night after work, Brennan and Em go out for a drink to the local watering hole, the Stardust Lounge.  Sitting at a booth, Connell enters the bar with his wife.  Ouch!  Brennan is oblivious, but Em is shaken.  They stop the car on their way home, to get some air and talk.  Brennan kisses Em.

The next day, Connell asks Brennan about his date with Em, digging for details.  Later, Connell tells Em that he wants to see her that night – meet up at his mom’s house.  When they meet up, Em asks him about his sex life with his wife.  Connell is not pleased – he likes to have his cake and eat it too.  Meanwhile, young Brennan is smoking pot with Lisa P., who turns out to be quite the stoner coquette.

Fourth of July – everyone is watching fireworks, Brennan and Em make some of their own in her AMC Pacer.  The mentally challenged parking lot attendant breaks it up before it gets too serious.  They go to her house, and as they are going at it, her dad (Josh Pais) and heinous stepmom Francy (Mary Birdsong) arrive home.  Francy is a frightful woman, a master at the backhanded compliment and the enfeebling comparison of accomplishments with other people’s children.  Em tells Brennan that her dad started an affair with Francy while her own mother was dying of cancer.  No wonder they don’t get along.

The next day, Connell takes Brennan with him on a run to his mom’s house, as she has an urgent repair to which he needs to attend, and Brennan has the joint that Connell needs to smoke.  Connell, in a conciliatory bonding moment, confides that his father took off and left him and his mom.  He asks Brennan about Em.  Brennan, trusting him, tells Connell that he’s in love with her.

It’s bar night at Razzmatazz, and all the Adventureland carnies are there.  Ronnie (Vanessa Wanger), Connell’s wife, is their waitress.  Everyone is drinking and dancing, and by the end of the night, Joel and redheaded “game girl” Sue O’Malley (Paige Howard) are going at it like wild animals.  Brennan tells Em that he thinks she’s really special, and she tells him she needs a break.

The next day, Lisa P. gets into a verbal altercation with her über-douche co-worker Pete O’Malley (Dan Bittner), and admits to Brennan that she’d like to date someone like him (Brennan).  Hearing this, Connell encourages Brennan to go for it.  We’re men!  We’re wired to imagine every woman we see, naked underneath us!  Further, Connell tells Brennan that Lisa P. is a virgin, strict Catholic.  Brennan considers this, vis-à-vis his own virginity.  Connell asks if Brennan and Em are having sex, and (still trusting Connell) he admits that no, they aren’t.

Joel asks “game girl” Sue O’Malley out on a date (after their makeout night at Razzmatazz, he figures, why not?).  Sue rejects him flatly, based on the fact that she’s Catholic and he’s Jewish, and her parents are really strict.  Em confronts her, and calls her an anti-Semitic asshole.

Brennan, meanwhile, goes out on a date with Lisa P.  They go to an Italian restaurant, where they are spotted by Brennan’s annoying childhood friend Frigo (Matt Bush) on a not-so-subtle recon mission.  At the restaurant, Lisa P. tells Brennan the truth about Connell – that he cheats on his wife, lures girls to his mom’s house for trysts, that he hits on her.  They leave the restaurant and smoke a joint.  While they don’t share an intellectual bond, they end up kissing in his car as he drops her home.  She won’t let him get any further than that; she really is a good Catholic girl.  Brennan finds a huge bottle of liquor in his car, and can’t figure out where it came from.

The next day, Brennan lies to Em about what he did the previous night.  Em makes pot cookies from some pot that Brennan gave her.  Joel, Em, and Brennan eat them at work, and attempt to perform their job duties while stoned.  Joel gets into trouble at his booth, and a fight erupts.  Brennan lands a devastating punch on a particularly thick, angry meathead, who chases him through the park, seeking revenge.  Brennan ducks into the administrative park office where manager Bobby (Bill Hader) ends the chase by threatening the meathead with a baseball bat.  After the fight, Em and Brennan sneak away to talk.  She calls him “the coolest and cutest guy I’ve ever met,” and they kiss.  The lights go out at the park.

The next day, Joel quits his job as a “game guy” at Adventureland.  When Brennan finds him at his home, Joel tells him that he’s a fool to go for Lisa P. when he already has Em.  It sinks in.  Brennan goes to the park (on his day off) and tells Em of his indiscretion with Lisa P.  His honesty puts a mirror to her behavior.  She breaks up with Connell.  Later, Frigo gets the parking attendant to tell Brennan that he saw Em and Connell doing pushups in his car with no pants on.  Brennan calls Em’s house.  Em’s dad tells Brennan that she said she was with him (Brennan).  That means, she can only be in one place:  Connell’s mom’s house.

The boys arrive and Brennan confronts Em, who is tearfully leaving the house.  It does not go well.  The next day they see each other at work, no words are exchanged.  Brennan goes to Razzmatazz with Lisa P, and tells her about Em and Connell’s affair, asking her not to tell anyone about it.  The net day at Adventureland, everyone knows about it.  Feeling exposed, Em quits.

She goes home to find her dad and Francy hosting guests for cocktails.  Francy and Em get into a huge fight.  On the other side of town, Brennan drinks brown liquor at a bar.  Driving home, it’s rainy.  Lou Reed sings, “Thought of you as my mountaintop,” and Brennan loses it.  He reaches for the big bottle of booze in his car and swigs as he drives.  He slams his car into a tree.

The next morning, he wakes up and the car is a mess.  His mom (Wendy Malick) chastises him, and he opens the car door and barfs.  Brennan’s wealthy pot-smoking college buddy Eric (Michael Zegen) has just returned from his Europe adventure, and has decided not to move to New York with Brennan, but to go to Harvard business school instead.  Brennan is crushed – their plan was to live together in the big city, and now those plans have vaporized.

It’s the end of the Adventureland season.  Brennan goes to pick up his last check, and hears Connell telling stories about jamming with Lou Reed.  But Connell is getting all the song titles wrong.  Brennan calls him on it.  The gig is up.  Connell tells Brennan that Ronnie found out about the affair with Em.  It seems they’re even; at least they are both equally miserable.

After talking it over with friends, Brennan decides to go to New York City anyway.  He finds Em in the middle of a rainstorm.  She says that she can’t see him, that she is full of regrets.  They bury the hatchet.  He loses his virginity.  The end.

This film reminded me of Noah Baumbach’s 1995 film Kicking And Screaming to some extent.  I mean, the young-adult-fresh-out-of-college comedy angle, certainly.  The East-coast neurotic self-discovery story, yes.  Identity crisis and Gen-X angst, check.  But where Kicking And Screaming is a bit of an esoteric talkfest, Adventureland shakes it up with a bevy of truly likable characters and a nostalgic romantic plot at its center.  Adventureland succeeds, I think, at making a narrative of all the pieces, and I found it immensely engaging.

Jesse Eisenberg is truly exceptional in this film, as the vulnerable, lovable, slightly neurotic every-dude.  He brings such sensitivity to this role, and makes you fall in love with him, just as Em does.  His quirks and his perceived weaknesses are his most endearing and attractive qualities.  It’s a great performance.

Kristen Stewart is fantastic here, too – a different vibe from Bella of Twilight, but the same familiar disenfranchisement and gravity toward the alternative.  The difference is that Bella is really non-sexified and naïve.  Em is sexually aware and possessed of herself.  It’s nice to see Stewart in a role like this – more subversive, smart, in the groove.  She deserves this kind of sophisticated material; it really shows her depth.

And Ryan Reynods as Connell – such a creep!  It takes a good director, good material and a good actor to pull off making such a hot guy into such a despicable character.  Nice job, Ryan Reynolds.  Martin Starr as Joel is so nerdy and sweet; you just want to hug him.  And in a well-deserved break from the “These minutes DON’T EXPIRE!” commercials for AT&T, Michael Bush turns in a funny and appropriately annoying performance as Frigo, Brennan’s childhood friend.

As for the costumes – I have a lot to say.  I remember 1987 vividly, and I must tell you that the costumes in this film did justice to the period, without making too much fun of it, or faltering in the crowd scenes – no small feat!!  Let’s take it character by character.

James Brennan – here is a shaggy-haired kid who wears jeans and t-shirts (this is what the producers will tell you, but it is lies! Lies! Lies!  He wears much more than jeans and t-shirts).  In the opener, when his mom tells him of his father’s “transferring jobs”, young Brennan wears a blue button-down oxford shirt with an awesome 1980s thick wool textured woven tie.  I loved this so much.  It is summertime, and this kid is wearing this monstrosity of a tie.  Probably because it is his only tie, irrespective of season.  Really nice.  Interestingly enough, as his mom is breaking this bad news to young Brennan, his dad is sucking down a brown-liquor cocktail, something that becomes significant later, but never addressed.

For the remainder of the film, we do see Brennan in mostly jeans and t-shirts (it’s true), but a lot of this takes place at work (with the Games Games Games t-shirt), and then when not at work, we see him in polo shirts, namely a grey with thin white stripes, and a solid black (in the confrontation scene with Em).  It’s a very subtle job of telling his story.  Young Brennan doesn’t wear much color; he doesn’t have the audacity.  When he does confront Em, though, he is in black – a powerful statement, indicating strength, when what we’ve seen him in before has been an array of non-committal colors – not really blue, not really grey, somewhere in between, like that. And his underwear is right on – not too many guys wore boxers in 1987, at least not guys like Brennan, and his undies were perfect in the film.  His hair is perfection – this actually does look like 1987 without being too on-the-nose or mocking. I think the entire production does a good job of riding this fine line; it’s not easy, especially in a comedy.

Em is dressed in a very interesting manner.  Here is a girl who is really attractive – Kristen Stewart is no slouch.  But in this film, with the East-coast ennui, alternative music interest, and absent parents, she is costumed in a way that expresses how she feels about herself.  She wears shapeless clothing, dark in color.  She wears rock t-shirts (which would have been a little bit of an affectation at the time) with bands/artists like Lou Reed and Hüsker Dü.  She wears black rubber bracelets, and her hair is always down, straight, and kind of in her face – no earrings or any kind of flashy jewelry.  That’s how it was back then, and I thought it was really nice handling of the period for a character like Em.  Her eyebrows were a little thin for the period (as most girls had pretty hefty eyebrows in 1987) but seeing as it’s hard to grow them back in, I’ll give it a pass.

Her room at home has posters of David Bowie, Buzzcocks, and Lou Reed, and in one scene she is watching a Poison video, I Want Action Tonight, from back in the day when MTv actually played music videos.  Music is so integral to her character, and to the other characters, that it becomes a character in and of itself in this film.  Em’s love of alternative music speaks to her position in the world, to her disenfranchisement, to the loss of her mother, to the way she expresses herself.  Em wears baggy clothing because it is the same façade that she hides behind in her music.  It is a shield against the world she resents.  It is her personal revolution.  As Morrissey once said in his song Unloveable, “I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside”.

Em’s destructive relationship with Connell is a reflection of her hatred of her own situation, and it is reflected in what she wears.  When she finds Brennan, she heals herself.  When we see her in New York City when she returns back to school, she wears a green sleeveless hoodie – green, meaning new beginning, perhaps.  Brennan finds her, and she redeems her bad behavior.  We see her progression turn, and her character arc, after her involvement with Brennan, and her coming to terms with the truth of what she has done.

The funny thing is that Kristen Stewart, in this movie as in Twilight, hasn’t been given the opportunity to let her body do the talking.  In both films she has been fairly well covered up, with the exception of a couple scenes in Adventureland – one where she wears a ribbed tank top, and another where she shows her bottom in bikini underwear.  I am eagerly awaiting the costumes on the Kristen Stewart vamp movie – and so, probably, is she.

Margarita Levieva as Lisa P.  was simply out of this world.  She’s supposed to be this sexpot, and man, you couldn’t have cast anyone better.  This actress really “got it”, and was unashamed in high-waisted stone-washed jeans, gigantic red heart plastic earrings and a ton of lip gloss.  Her costuming was perfect, and here’s why…

Girls like Lisa P. were everywhere in the 1980s.  Teenaged girls with perfect behinds, poured into their jeans, big hair and big jewelry, big nails, chewing gum.   There are a few choice Lisa P. costume moments, and they include the nightclub scenes (two of them) at Razzmatazz – in the first nightclub scene, Lisa P. wears a two-piece plaid ensemble.  It’s a bustier plus pants, and it’s just as cheesy as it gets, while still being believable.  In the second nightclub scene, she wears an eyeball-killing two-piece ensemble that features matching cropped jacket and pants, with a glaring color scheme print and checkerboard pattern.  It’s a total wow.  Nicely done!

At Adventureland, Lisa P. has cut the ringer collar out of her Rides Rides Rides shirt, and her off-colored bra straps are always exposed.  She dances at the entrance to her ride wearing things like, I don’t know, pink cheetah leggings, pink flats, blue bra, big pink hoop earrings, bangle bracelets and her cut-out Rides Rides Rides shirt – it’s really spectacular.  And the crazy thing is, it’s not overdone.  It’s the 1980s, and things were often taken to the extreme.  She wears this tight clothing to work with way too many accessories to safely operate a ride, but she’s hot and she has a cute butt and no one’s going to tell her no.  It’s a brilliant set of costumes for a fabulous character!  YAY!

Brennan’s mom and dad – wow, these are the quintessential image-conscious East-coast 1980s parents.  As long as it doesn’t LOOK like anything is wrong, nothing is wrong.  They are perfectly costumed in their madras plaids, over-the-shoulder-tied sweaters, oxford shirts and preppy silhouettes, while meanwhile, their world is crumbling.  When Brennan’s mom confronts him about the bottle of liquor in the car (after he’s crashed the car into the tree), Brennan’s dad looks on, guiltily, as if he put the bottle in the car.  It’s very subtle, but the message is that Brennan’s dad has a drinking problem, and that it has possibly caused him to be demoted in his company, and to cause the family’s downward spiral.  It’s a back-story that is cleverly and stealthily conceived, and the actors are really in on it – it helps to flesh out the story beautifully.

Em’s Dad and stepmom, wowza.  Em’s dad is a laywer, and no real great shakes here, he appears as expected, in a suit or jacket, as per usual.  But the stepmom, Francy, Hallelujah.  First of all, I love that her name is spelled Francy, like FANCY with an R, as opposed to the normal spelling Francie.  It speaks volumes.  Second of all, let’s talk about Francy’s heinous wig and even more spectacularly heinous dresses: brown silk jacquard python print, with thick gold chain necklace?  It’s perfect, because, as previously stated, in the 1980s, things were often taken to the extreme, and Francy is one of them.  Francy’s costumes look comical, but man I can TESTIFY that some of my friends’ moms (who will remain nameless) actually wore that kind of mess, for seriousness’s sake.

Frigo has some very interesting costumes.  First of all, it is clear that he is Italian, as he wears the solid-gold Italian horn charm on his necklace, along with what might be a cross – hard to tell.  Second, he wears headbands and wristbands.  Third, he wears homemade (? But it looks like Cooper-iron-on-lettering, homemade) t-shirts with sayings like “I’m Frigo, Kapeesh?” It’s pretty hilarious, and I am so glad that the costume department had the freedom to costume this guy as they did.  I am sure that the Frigo character is based upon some real person in Greg Mottola’s life, and it is nice to see him so fully realized in this film.  Too many times, you’ll have a group of fifteen studio executives who try to put their 50 cents in on every costume, every character, and as a consequence, the entire vision or “look” of the movie gets diluted.  It doesn’t appear that this happened on this film to a great extent.  These characters are strong and true in their vision, and it is refreshing and exciting to see it!

Kristen Wiig as Paulette has some pure awesomeness as well, in the costume department.  As the female manager of Adventureland, her costumage consists of printed polo shirts (tucked in, natch), high-waisted acid-washed jeans, and either high top Reeboks, or deck/boat shoes (in green, no less).  She has mega-tidal-wave bangs with wings (YES!) and her makeup is an atrocity, in the most perfect way.  I am so happy for the hair-makeup-costume department on this film that they could realize her character in the manner appropriate to the material.  It is thrilling to see!

The background is great  – I was watching all of them pretty closely…  and was not disappointed, as I saw plenty of high-waisted shorts, headbands, madras walking shorts, horizontal stripes, and scrunchy socks.  YESSS!  Really, I am so happy for Melissa Toth and her crew on this film.  They were given the space and the freedom to create something that truly has edge and impact.  Congratulations to all on a job very, very well done!

And seriously, you gotta see this film.

— KMB

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