Friday, 4 September 2009

The Battle for the Soul of Jesse Eisenberg

I recently watched Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009), newly released on DVD, an indie romantic comedy that I really enjoyed. It stars Jesse Eisenberg, who is also the lead of two other very good comedy-dramas, Roger Dodger (Dylan Kidd, 2002) and The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005). These three films have a great deal in common, especially in terms of the characters that Eisenberg plays. In all three, Eisenberg is positioned between different concepts of masculinity, especially in relation to women. Eisenberg's characters are all very similar, sensitive young men who want to respect women and find romantic love. They are in many ways post-feminist young men who want to join in rejecting traditional masculinity. However, in each film, there is an older male character who tempts the character into rejecting their sensitivity and embracing their "natural" sexual urges. Of course, these natural urges involve viewing sexuality in a physical rather than idealist light.

This biological argument gets expressed in the great opening scene of Roger Dodger, with Roger's opening line: "What's happening right now is important only in the context of our continuing evolution as a species." Roger (played by Campbell Scott) explains to his colleagues that man is only useful as long as he has a utility to women. Once that function ceases, which he believes is coming in the future with technology that will allow procreation without men, the result will not be "equality" but rather "natural selection"; the role of the male gender will thus become first servitude and then elimination. It is a dazzling speech and performance, as indicated within the film by the applause he is given by his colleagues after he concludes, and sets up Roger as a seducer, not only or even primarily of women but of his young nephew (played by Eisenberg). It clearly sets up the character's hatred of women as being intimately linked to his vulnerability. But this vulnerability is actually not biological in any way. It is primarily social and cultural, a result of Roger's own difficult relationship with his father. This scene sets the stage for the drama not only of Roger Dodger but of the later films as well. Both the father in The Squid and the Whale (played by Jeff Daniels) and the carnival maintenance worker in Adventureland (played by Ryan Reynolds) make similar arguments about sexuality being something that is a physical need in order to justify their own behaviour, and Eisenberg in each case is lured into rejecting his former values and following this path. By the end of each of these films, however, the character comes to a better understanding of the jaded and rather pathetic nature of these characters (only in Roger Dodger does this character also come to some self-realization) and rejects them.

Adventureland is especially interesting because Eisenberg's character is now older (post-graduate) and in many ways the battle is not as difficult. He easily rejects Connell for the loser that he is, and even forgives his girlfriend for cheating on him. This is why I think the most interesting character in the film is actually Em (played by Kristen Stewart), who is also torn between two different types of masculinity and has difficulty rejecting the older form. Again, this is less biological than social, given the difficulty she has in her own family situation. Still, although it is about slightly older characters, Adventureland still has a youthful idealism and concludes on a beautiful shot just before Eisenberg enters into the world of sexuality. What will be interesting will be if Eisenberg continues to get cast as similar characters as he gets older. Because in many ways the battle he will face going forward will be much more internal, an attempt to maintain a certain idealism in the face of social reality.

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