Heartache and old corn dogs

Never let it be said that working in show business isn’t rough.

Actually, no. Let people say what they feel. Don’t be a dick. My point, though, is the following: Overloaded schedules can suck.

“Yeah, did SNL, um, got home at 2:30 `a.m.`, and then woke up and flew here, dropped my bag off, came downstairs, and we went to ... the screening last night and did a Q&A,” says a kinda-beat-looking but immensely good-natured Bill Hader, responding to my voiced puzzlement/mild disbelief that he could be on my television set — purportedly “live, from New York” — and then, somewhere in the neighborhood of 36 hours later, sitting at a table with a handful of entertainment reporters for a noonish chat at Austin’s Four Seasons hotel.

Next to him, Greg Mottola — heretofore probably best known as the director of Superbad — completes the intinerary: “And we’re leaving in about an hour to go to L.A. for the premiere of the movie.”

“Which is tonight,” Hader says. “In L.A.”

Whether he’s repeating it for emphasis or because he’s just dog-ass tired and doesn’t realize it’s been said, it’s easy to feel for the guy. Both of ’em. And now they have to talk to us. (Which, I should probably reassert, they graciously don’t appear to begrudge us in the least.)

Of course, it’s not all rainy-day groin-kicks. You or I don’t customarily get to drop by South By Southwest for an evening or so to celebrate our work and end up hanging out with such folk as David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, Adam (MCA from the Beastie Boys) Yauch, and Seth Rogen. Not to mention, as Hader terms them, “Friday Night Lights people.”

“I was freakin’ out, calling my wife, like, ‘Aaugh! Connie Britton’s down here!’”

The motive propelling all this lunacy, the swirling nexus underlying the jetlag and the bleary-eyed press day and the hanging-out-with-Connie-Britton, is simple: the SXSW premiere of Adventureland, which Mottola wrote and directed, and which features Hader in a memorable supporting turn.

The film follows cerebral college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, of The Squid and the Whale and Roger Dodger, who, to give you an idea of his onscreen persona, if you’re unfamiliar, is reportedly set to play Allen Ginsberg in the upcoming Kill Your Darlings), whose dreams of Europe-borne cultural epiphanies are smashed to powder courtesy of ’80s-era economic skids and replaced with a perhaps-less-rarified reality: You wanna go to college, you get a soul-leeching job at a rust-bucket amusement park. Because that’s how life works sometimes.

Mottola’s life, in fact. (Or, at least, sort of.)

“Um, I did not meet Kristen Stewart the summer I worked at an amusement park, I must admit,” Mottola says, referring to the picture’s central relationship — and confirming that, yes, James’s tale is at least partly inspired by his own post-college tribulations, endured roundabout two decades ago while employed by Long Island/Farmingdale’s real-life (and since renovated) Adventureland. He maintains, though, that it wasn’t all bad.

“Amusement parks are places that can be, you know, one second, really grimy and disgusting and, another second, really kind of magical and wonderful. They still can do that, and they still have that power,” he says. “’Cause it is, simultaneously, a horrible, minimum-wage job, and a ridiculous thing to do. But, yeah ... that summer was also … extremely fun once I got over the embarrassment.”

Embarrassment, indeed, is in ample supply for young James, whose coin-op coming-of-age is a tortuous path, populated chiefly with burnouts and lost souls, and beset by seemingly arbitrary edicts governing, among other things, the dispensation of cotton-packed sundries to people you generally want to punch. (When your credited-extras list includes “Molly Hatchet T-Shirt Guy,” “Barfing Kid,” and “Panda Con Dad” `as in, a “Dad” who runs a “Con” to get his scion a plush-toy “Panda”`, you know your onscreen job’s gonna suck. Even if Molly Hatchet doesn’t. `And they don’t. (Editor’s note: Yes, they most certainly do.)`) But Mottola, apparently, doesn’t put his protagonist through much that he himself didn’t in some way experience, as well.

“One story from that summer was Brian Setzer, from the Stray Cats, came ... and played one of the games,” Mottola recounts. “And his girlfriend, this kinda hot, tattooed, uh, Long Island girl he was with, won — and the prize ... and I put it in the movie, was a banana with eyes, and she wanted the better prize, and I knew that — I was under strict orders ... if you give someone a better prize and someone catches you, you can get fired. And I remember … saying, ‘Sorry, it’s the banana with eyes,’ and thinking, ‘This is pathetic, ’cause I like the Stray Cats a lot. I wanted to say, like, ‘Dude, rockabilly is awesome,’ and give him the giant St. Bernard, but I didn’t, and I thought, ‘I’m a terrible, small person.’”

Hader, who plays one half of loopy-but-oddly-sweet park-owner couple Bobby and Paulette (fellow SNL favorite Kristen Wiig is his supportive, possibly paint-huffing missus), says he has related memories of fairs in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“I was telling Greg, it was like a big moment in my life, was when I realized that all the games were, uh, rigged. … I was like, ‘God, I have this basketball hoop at home, I’m standing the exact `same distance` far away from it, and, how can I not make anything? This is ridiculous.’ And I would keep putting money in, be like, ‘I know I can make this, ’cause I do this all the time at home. How am I not making this?’ And then my friend’s older brother was like `in Oklahoman drawl`, ‘Hey, man, this, it’s all rigged, bro.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ And he goes, ‘They rig ’em all.’ And I was like, ‘Whaaat?!’”

“I was so disillusioned,” Mottola says.

“I know,” Hader says. “It was like the end of Usual Suspects.”

Despite Mottola and Hader’s fruitful associations with Judd Apatow, it’s well worth mentioning that Adventureland feels as much like, say, Noah Baumbach’s Squid (for more than just the obvious reason) as like Superbad. Its characters are quirky, sure, but often sad, damaged, hurting. Those in search of an effective and recurring boner joke will find it here, but there’s less of that sort of thing than one might expect — and, perhaps, more depth.

“The impetus `was` to write a movie about young love, but to try and do it in a way that shows that it’s messy and painful and isn’t a Hollywood cliché about soulmates,” Mottola says. “The whole point was that `James` was falling in love with someone who was going through a complicated time in their life, and that would be the … decision he’d have to make, is whether to run away from that person or run toward them.” •

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