Adventureland (United States, 2009)

March 29, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Adventureland Poster

More than 30 years ago, the template established by Animal House for college age comedies became a recognized standard. However, although the Animal House approach is a good way to get cheap laughs, it falls apart when anything more substantive is desired. It's increasingly rare for a filmmaker to trust an audience enough to build this sort of comedy around intelligent, believable characters in which the humor evolves organically out of the story and the relationships. Too often, artificial set pieces are shoehorned into an otherwise low-key narrative for the sole purpose of amping up the laugh quotient. Greg Mottola, whose Superbad exhibited some of this behavior (particularly in the scenes with "McLovin'" and the two cops) has taken a leap of faith with Adventureland. The result is a sharp, insightful, charming motion picture.

If The Wonder Years had followed Kevin and his friends into their early 20s, the end product might have occupied similar terrain as Adventureland. If John Hughes had made movies about characters five years older than his usual crowd, those pictures might have been flavored like Adventureland. Commercials for the film are playing up the "funny bone" aspect, but the laughs are secondary to the heart. This isn't Judd Apatow territory. Although the dialogue doesn't shrink from sex and other matters that obsess 22-year old men and women, it's not wall-to-wall crudeness and profanity. Sitting through this movie and recognizing the fragile balance between humor and honesty, I waited with trepidation for the first false note to be struck - the misplayed chord that would shatter the melody. It never happened. Okay, so the bozo who repeatedly punches his best friend in the groin is annoying, but even he isn't overdone. Every other character is treated with respect. Mottola rejects familiar clich├ęs in favor of allowing the individuals populating his picture to live and breathe. And the uncanny insight with which he depicts second-rate amusement parks from the late 1980s speaks of first-hand experience.

It's 1987 and James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a newly minted college graduate, is looking forward to a summer in Europe before heading east from Pittsburgh to New York City for an Ivy League graduate education. Unfortunately, James' dad (Jack Gilpin) suffers a setback at work and the money is no longer there for either the trip or Columbia. So James must get a job, and the only place where his lack of practical experience isn't a hindrance is a minimum-wage shift at Adventureland Amusement Park, running a game booth. It's a crappy job, but the compensation is that James meets some interesting people: Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the rock star maintenance man who plays the field despite his wedding ring; Joel (Martin Starr), whose intellect and awkwardness around women match James'; Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), the star of every male's wet dreams; and Em (Kristen Stewart), whose mixture of compassion, substance, and girl-next-door good looks dooms James to a summer of longing. Despite his geeky appearance and fondness for deep thinking, he's surprisingly popular - although that could have something to do with his stash of joints.

The evolving relationship between James and Em, although far from uncomplicated, is not contorted by the usual romantic comedy missteps and misunderstandings. The movie skirts familiar territory, especially when it's revealed that the subject of Connell's summer fling is Em, but it never stumbles into it. Mottola elects to present Connell not as the biggest asshole alive but as a man whose rampant infidelity is counterbalanced by positive traits. Once he recognizes there's something developing between James and Em, he doesn't actively torpedo their romance to protect his interests. 99% of similar movies would have transformed this character into an A-level jerk but Mottola doesn't take such a facile route. It's the same with the other characters. Because they are patterned after real people rather than Hollywood types, they act and speak in atypical ways - not too clever (like in Juno) and not too dumb.

Jesse Eisenberg embodies a geek who doesn't fit the Hollywood standard-issue model. He's smart, witty, and confident. His uncertainty around women is apparent but not overplayed. He can interact with them without freezing up. Kristen Stewart's Em is the kind of unpretentious girl someone like James would fall for. Stewart is more than merely appealing in this role - she makes Em a fully realized woman, and some of the most intricate development results from what the camera observes in Stewart's eyes. It's easy to forgive the young actress her participation in the Twilight movies if she continues to contribute to projects of this caliber. She has too much talent to waste in hollow adaptations of shallow books. The supporting cast is strong as well, including Reynolds - who may be playing the role he was born to play - and Martin Starr, the first college movie best friend not hell-bent on getting his buddy into trouble. Even comedic actors Bill Hedar and Kristen Wiig are carefully reined in.

For the most part, Adventureland does not wallow in '80s nostalgia, although "Rock Me Amadeus" becomes an anthem of sorts. But it does tweak memories - reminiscences of those horrible summer jobs redeemed only by the easy relationships formed with fellow employees stuck in the same situation. Because many viewers, irrespective of age, will relate to that sort of mundane experience, Mottola doesn't need a more compelling hook. Once he has our attention, he holds it by providing characters with whom we develop an almost instantaneous bond, and he doesn't endanger that reality by polluting it with over-the-top secondary characters or inauthentic narrative contortions. I liked these individuals and I appreciated what Mottola does with them.

Adventureland (United States, 2009)

Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2009
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2009-04-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Drugs, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1