Movie Review: Adventureland
By Matthew Huntley
April 14, 2009
Adventureland takes place during that precious time between college and the rest of your life - the time when you realize how much college taught you about free-thinking but how little it prepared you for the working world. This developmental phase can be exciting and unpredictable, but also scary, grim and depressing. One thing is for sure - it's unforgettable.
For James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), the summer of 1987 isn't supposed to be the summer in between college and the rest of his life. It's supposed to be the summer in between undergrad and Columbia, but his mom and dad (Wendie Malick and Jack Gilpin) tell him Columbia will have to wait because his dad has been demoted and they'll be making significantly less money. This means James' summer trip to Europe is out and he's forced to get a summer job. When he starts looking, he realizes just how under-qualified he is, even for manual labor.
That's when he seeks out Adventureland, a decrepit theme park near his hometown in Pittsburgh. It's the kind of park that has more in common with a traveling carnival than Disneyland. It's managed by Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), a dorky but sweet husband and wife team who immediately give James a job in the games department. The socially awkward Joel (Martin Starr) shows James the ropes and explains how the games are rigged so customers barely win. He also mentions he can kiss his job good-bye if he ever allows anybody to win a giant-a*s panda (since the stock is so low).
During his training, James catches the attention of Em (Kristen Stewart), a smart and rebellious girl who throws parties, has sex with older men and comes with her own heavy baggage of emotional problems. She and James establish a connection and it was refreshing to see their relationship be based on honesty and natural conversations rather than moments of beating around the bush and conventional meet-cutes and plot devices. When the two sit parked outside James' house or swim in their underwear in Em's pool, their dialogue and behavior never felt scripted. It flowed naturally and charismatically.
From a distance, Adventureland looks like any other recent teen comedy from the Judd Apatow collection. In fact, director Greg Mottola gives it the same raw look and tone as his previous venture, Superbad (produced by Apatow), but the story of Adventureland stands on its own and becomes something more special. This is one of the best coming-of-age movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time. It's funny, thoughtful and honest, all while refraining from cheap laughs and gimmicks. It's more about genuine, complex characters we learn to care for and who keep us interested in the drama going on in their lives.
Sure, the movie does contain some familiar moments we've come to expect from the genre - party scenes, drinking, marijuana smoking, etc. But at least the characters are above the high school level, so they bring with them a certain amount of maturity. I liked that James and Em go to a bar to talk. They don't just go to drink because they feel like they're getting away with something.
The people and situations in Adventureland operate on a certain level of truth, one that makes me think Mottola must have lived through a similar experience himself, or perhaps the movie is a collection of several different episodes from Mottola's adolescence. He gives his characters smart, interesting dialogue to speak. They talk about heavy topics like relationships, morals, parents, sex - and they talk about them in ways that assures us Mottola is being straight with us. He avoids cliches we might have previously thought were inevitable for the plot to move forward. For example, you'd think Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park's maintenance man, would fulfill the role of the obligatory, machismo jerk, especially given what he does when he's not at work. But Mottola doesn't remotely write him that way and Reynolds doesn't remotely play him that way.
The performances in Adventureland all capture the urgency and anxiety of their characters. They're unaffected and heartfelt. Eisenberg is instantly likable because he doesn't play just another geek (like Jonah Hill or Michael Cera). James is a smart, admirable young man with heavy thoughts and interesting things to say. He's someone I would want to befriend.
Kristen Stewart gives one of her best performances as Em. For this, I credit not only Stewart, but also Mottola, because after you compare her acting here to Twilight, you realize just how much of a difference a director makes. Stewart and Reynolds share a scene where Em is distraught and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It's here when we sense Stewart really knows what Em is feeling and completely identifies with her.
No one in their right mind would ever want to work at a place like Adventureland, which was another aspect of the screenplay I found refreshing - the film doesn't pretend James has become emotionally attached to his first job and doesn't assume he wants to work there forever. There's a nice scene when he simply thanks Bobby and Paulette for giving him a job but it's obvious he has no desire to come back. Yet, the ending also suggests James wouldn't trade his experience at Adventureland for anything. It's that quality Mottola captures that makes us relate to James' story so much. Despite our most precarious or painful experiences - ones we may not look back on with fond memories - they made us who we are.