Jesse Eisenberg plays James Brennan, a recent college graduate whose dreams of a summer backpacking through Europe, followed by Columbia grad school, come to a screeching halt when he finds out that his family is having money troubles. A comparative lit major, James discovers that he is unqualified for almost every job, eventually having to settle for a job at a rundown amusement park, where the rides are rickety, the games are rigged and the employees are surly. The park is run by Bobby (Bill Hader with a giant moustache) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), an eccentric couple that met at the park and obviously love it more than anyone in their right mind should.
I went into the movie expecting lots of wacky shenanigans, but Mottola has something more low-key and sincere in mind. The film is very funny, bit it isn’t a gag factory. This movie has more of a bittersweet, nostalgic tone to it than most comedies, and feels more akin to something like Dazed and Confused than to most teen comedies, spending as much time establishing a feeling of time and place as it does telling jokes. Adventureland shows the rhythms of lazy days at the park, working a soul-crushing job at which you cling to minor rebellions and flirtations while you can feel your dreams floating away. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mottola himself spent a summer or two working in an amusement park in the ’80s.
Mottola masterfully evokes the ’80s without ever going for camp, and, much like Richard Linklater in Dazed and Confused and George Lucas in American Graffiti, music has a lot to do with that. We see the annoying pop the kids had to endure by day (there are only so many times you can hear Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”) contrasted with the Lou Reed, Big Star and Husker Du they listen to in their free time. Mottola deploys Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” as masterfully as he does a Foreigner cover band.
James is a lot like a sweeter, less repellent version of Eisenberg’s character in The Squid and the Whale, who only liked people who liked “books and interesting films.” He seems to have acquired all his affectations from Woody Allen, he reads “poetry for pleasure” and casually mentions in conversations that he speaks Italian and loves to read Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Eisenberg brings a gangly, stuttering charm to James, whose innocence and naïveté are all bound up in his unformed ideas of what love should be, and his utter mystification of women. Like any good liberal arts graduate, his ideas of love come mostly from the books he’s read, and real-live women seem rather daunting. He wants to understand these inscrutable creatures, and, if he’s lucky, eff the ineffable, but he’s unprepared for love in the real world.
When he meets Em (Kristen Stewart, from Twilight), he falls hard. Outwardly, Em seems to have it all together, but she has had tragedy in her life, and has a lot of issues she isn’t even close to processing. She should be too smart for it, but Em has allowed herself to fall into a masochistic, dead-end relationship with a married man (Ryan Reynolds), which makes her hate herself and threatens to poison her burgeoning relationship with James before it even begins.
The movie absolutely nails a few characters, like Reynolds’ Connell, the park’s maintenance man, who loves being idolized by the teens who work at the park, and revels in his status as the big fish in a very small pond, but in the real world is just a loser with a broken marriage and dying dreams of becoming a professional musician. And Reynolds tones down the smarm he tends to bring to his performances, instead playing Connell as a real person.
Mottola’s script is full of well-realized characters like these. Even minor supporting characters, like buxom park bombshell Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), manage to emerge as realistic people when they could have just been two-dimensional sketches.
Adventureland is shot through with feelings of dashed expectations. The terrific Freaks and Geeks alum Martin Starr plays James’ friend Joel, a pipe-smoking Russian lit major who knows his degree makes him eligible for any number of exciting careers in the food service industry. Joel is self-aware enough to realize how his life will likely go, but it hasn’t killed his hope. After drunkenly making out with a girl, Joel gives her a copy of Gogol’s short stories, and is crestfallen when she treats the gift like a dead bird brought to her doorstep by a housecat.
The movie does cover some familiar ground -- there are wild parties, James is ashamed of his virginity -- but it does so with more warmth and intelligence than usual, and the movie rarely rushes for a joke. Adventureland tends to amble through its story, digressing here and there instead of sprinting through the plot, and feels much like the lazy summer it depicts.
Adventureland is very funny and charming, but Mottola’s real achievement here is to give us a portrait of an era we won’t mind spending a little more time in, and realistic characters on the border between childhood and adulthood. These characters are just trying to figure out who they are, and we’re content to watch them do it. Adventureland proves that, when done with wit and intelligence, the well-worn coming-of-age story can still be immensely satisfying.
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