Amused in the Eighties Edge of Seventeen and Adventureland’s Coming-of-Age Tales By Chris Cummins. The ’80s gave us many things - Colecovision, fear of nuclear annihilation, Adam Ant, and so on – but one of the most interesting cultural artifacts that the decade spawned was the sex comedy...

The ’80s gave us many things - Colecovision, fear of nuclear annihilation, Adam Ant, and so on – but one of the most interesting cultural artifacts that the decade spawned was the sex comedy. To be clear, raunchy comedies existed before Reagan took his place in the White House. Yet it was the eighties in which the genre truly began to thrive. Flicks like Hardbodies, Hot Dog: The Motion Picture, Spring Break, and, um, Hamburger: The Motion Picture chronicled the exploits of American teens who wanted nothing more than to get laid. These films were a long way from the gentle nostalgia presented a decade earlier in American Graffiti. T&A abounded, and as the home video revolution changed the way we watched movies, these sorts of films got more low-budget and ribald as the decade wore on. The legacy of sex-crazed comedies can still be felt in everything from spiritual successors like the American Pie series to Judd Apatow’s oeuvre (which managed to figure out how to balance naughty humor with real heart). But what happens when filmmakers who came of age during that era attempt to accurately depict their own adolescent experiences? Two films that do just that are David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen (1998) and Greg Mottola’s Adventureland (2009). These movies are especially noteworthy because of the similarities they share: each is a dramedy that features protagonists - one gay and one straight - who discover themselves over the course of a summer spent working at an amusement park. Despite being geared towards two different audiences, both pictures feature quests for love and clarity.

Edge of Seventeen is the story of Eric (Chris Stafford), a New Wave-loving aspiring musician who takes a job working at the local amusement park with his best friend Maggie (Tina Holmes). Forced to work in the park’s restaurant, he makes the most of a bad situation by becoming fast friends with his outrageous boss Angie (a scene-stealing Lea DeLaria) and openly gay co-worker Rod (Andersen Gabrych). As the summer wears on, Eric’s platonic relationship with Rod turns physical. However, after this first sexual experience, Eric is left confused and wanting more when Rod returns to college. Throwing himself into his classes and his desire to be reunited with Rod or move to New York City, he becomes increasingly oblivious to Maggie’s attraction to him. After deciding to stop by his small town’s gay bar, The Universal Fruit and Nut Company (which is none-too-coincidentally run by Angie), he has a random sexual encounter in a stranger’s car. Feeling confused about the experience, he decides to call Rod to declare his love. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear to Eric that their dalliance meant much more to him than to Rod. Feeling jilted and confused, he turns to Maggie for support. She’s not exactly thrilled by the situation, but loves him nonetheless. Oh Saint Maggie, you deserved so much better. Sigh.

After eventually coming out to Maggie, Eric begins spending more time exploring his sexuality as his mother grows increasingly suspicious of his erratic behavior and flamboyant outfits. After Maggie reluctantly agrees to hang out with Eric at the gay bar, she arrives late and is quickly declared to be a "fag hag" by one of Eric and Angie’s barfly pals. Adding insult to injury, her arrival is completely ignored by Eric, who is too busy making out with fellow Eurythmics fan, Jonathan, (Jeff Fryer) to notice her. Maggie flees, and Eric follows her. The pair has a brutal argument and Eric, feeling more alone than ever, travels to Jonathan’s college for comfort. Before you can say contrivance, it turns out that his new would-be boyfriend lives in the same dorm as Rod, whom Eric soon runs into. They sleep together, and Rod further proves himself to be an insensitive jerk as Eric discovers how painful sex can be – in more ways than one.

The next day, Eric once again runs to Maggie. He tells her that hooking up with guys was just a phase and that he really loves her. The pair returns to Eric’s home, where he sleeps with her. The next morning, he realizes the error of his ways and that he can never be the man Maggie needs him to be. Feeling used and rejected, Maggie flees from Eric’s room just as his mom storms in – she found a matchbook from the gay bar in his coat. Busted! After Eric leaves to compose himself, he comes back home and reveals to his mother that yes, he is gay. They embrace and she says she’ll need some time. The next day in school, Eric sees Maggie at her locker but she looks away, still visibly heartbroken. In the film’s final scene, Eric arrives back at the Universal Fruit and Nut Company where he meets up with Jonathan and together they watch as Angie sings "Blue Skies." Everything is fine. Or is it?

Written by Todd Stephens (who, like Adventureland‘s Greg Mottola, worked at an amusement park during his teen years), Edge of Seventeen is a film that portrays its subjects in a realistic light. This is especially true of the Eric character. He is by no means a saint at the end of the picture. In fact, his behavior towards Maggie is arguably worse than how Rod treated him. These characters are never black or white, but rather the complex shades of gray that reflect the way people actually behave. And unlike Adventureland there is no tidy wrap up here. We don’t know if Eric’s mom will ever truly accept him (or his father for that matter, though in the movie that character is depicted as a non-entity), if Maggie can ever forgive him or if he and Jonathan actually have a future together. These unanswered questions provide an added layer of realism to the film. Ultimately, the lack of clarity doesn’t matter, what does is that when the curtains roll Eric is finally in a place where he accepts himself and his life.

This brings us to the equally excellent (and way more well-known) Adventureland. Because of the mainstream nature of the flick, a less in-depth wrap up seems in order. When he learns that his parents don’t have the cash needed to pay for his planned European vacation, recent college grad James (Jesse Eisenberg) is forced to take a job at the local amusement park for the summer before he starts grad school in NYC in the fall. Along with reuniting him with former best friend Frigo (Matt Bush), the titular workplace introduces him to weary intellectual Joel (Martin Starr), sexy siren Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), troubled NYU student Emily (Kristen Stewart), bosses Paulette (Kristen Wiig) and Bobby (Bill Hader), and maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds). Immediately falling for Emily, James finds his budding romance to her threatened by his insecurity about being a virgin, her ongoing affair with Connell, and his father’s drinking problem. The film delves into the general ennui that comes from loving someone who seems unattainable (not to mention thugs who want to steal giant-ass stuffed pandas).

Of the two films focused on here, Adventureland follows the more traditional love story path. By the time the sound of INXS’s "Don’t Change" blares over the end credits, James and Emily have overcome all obstacles in their path and a bright future is assured. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the film’s box office prospects. You see, the biggest thing working against Adventureland was Greg Mottola’s previous film, Superbad. Ignoring that this picture was a gentle story of romance and self-discovery, Miramax execs decided to market it as a broad comedy à la a certain Michael Cera/Jonah Hill vehicle. But instead of McLovin, audiences were given such characters as a brooding intellectual with a pipe habit, a sexy gossip who lived for Shannon’s "Let the Music Play" and a sleazy fixit man who would inexplicably make up lies about jamming with Lou Reed to bed teenage girls. Make no mistake, despite the laughs featured in the movie and comedic pedigree of the cast, Adventureland is first and foremost concerned with the drama that plays out as James tries to win the heart of Emily. It’s a great film to be sure, but one that wholly differed from the expectations of its audience.

The botched marketing campaign (not to mention dumb people mistaking it for a sequel to Eisenberg’s Zombieland) had audiences wanting big laughs instead viewing a feature that had more in common with mumblecore than The 40-Year Old Virgin. This caused negative word of mouth amongst unenlightened filmgoers and disappointing box office. That, my friends, is totally gnarly.

These days, both Edge of Seventeen and Adventureland have found cult audiences thanks to DVD/Blu-ray as well as their perpetual streaming on Netflix. Stephens later went on to writing the equally compelling Gypsy ‘83 as well as the Another Gay Movie series, and Mottola returned to comedy with Paul (2011). As worthy as these subsequent efforts are, they don’t maintain the semi-autobiographical feel of Edge of Seventeen and Adventureland. A few minor anachronisms aside, each film does capture the feel of what it was like to grow up amidst the marvel and uncertainty of the ’80s. Now, can you really say that about Fraternity Vacation?

FilmEdge of SeventeenAdventureland
Year (Setting)19841987
Location of Amusement Park Where Characters WorkSandusky, OHPittsburgh, PA
Wacky Boss Character (s) Portrayed ByLea DeLariaKristen Wiig and Bill Hader
Dysfunction Father’s Defining Personality TraitOblivious doltSecret alcoholic
City Main Character Wants To Move ToNew York CityNew York City
Main Character’s Desired Career PathMusicianTravel essayist
Song That Gets Characters Worked Into A Frenzy"Smalltown Boy" by Bronski Beat"Rock Me Amadeus" by Falco
Features A Scene In Which Characters Dance to Animotion’s "Obsession"YesYes
Most Screwed-Over Character At Film’s ConclusionMaggie (Tina Holmes)Joel (Martin Starr)
Main Character Desires To Lose VirginityHell yesYou betcha
Film Presents An Accurate Depiction Of Coming Of Age In The 1980sKind ofSorta

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