By Elise Nakhnikian
Whoever marketed Adventureland owes Greg Mottola an apology. The trailer leans heavily on laughs and gross-out humor to appeal to fans of Superbad, the last movie Mottola directed. That may have pulled people into theaters on opening weekend, but it also spurred a lot of backlash from Superbad fans who complain that Adventureland is no Superbad.
They’re right: It’s much better.
Superbad’s a sweet movie, but it’s thin: a wish-fulfillment fantasy by and for adolescent boys (Seth Rogan and his best friend wrote the first draft while they were still in high school.) Mottola based Adventureland on a summer he spent working at an amusement park, and it shows: The world he creates has the immediacy and unpredictability of real life.
What’s more, Mottola is looking back at adolescence from the perspective of adulthood. That gives this movie a wry humor and a contemplative tone that make it a lot more moving – and more memorable – than Superbad’s hyped-up hijinks.
In fact, Adventureland is good enough to join the ranks of great American coming-of-age movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and American Graffiti. Like them, it faithfully recreates the look and feel of a certain place and time, but its real subject is that emotionally charged yet inherently comic condition known as American adolescence.
This time around, we’re in an amusement park outside Pittsburgh, and it’s 1987. Yes, that means there are lots of bright and shiny color-coordinated outfits, and lots of big hair, big earrings, and David Bowie posters. But the set dressing stays in the background, and the clothes never wear the people.
Instead, you focus on James (Jesse Eisenberg), a newly minted college graduate trying to save up for grad school, and the people he meets at Adventureland, the amusement park where he’s working for the summer. Eisenberg plays essentially the same painfully sensitive soul he played in Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale, and The Education of Charlie Banks – an overeducated naïf who tries to get a cashier job by telling his interviewer that he got 770 on his math SAT.
At first, he’s downright annoying. Then Eisenberg shows us the nice kid under the façade, and his attempts to seem sophisticated start to look touchingly awkward – and funny. When James’ crush, Em (Kristen Stewart) first drives him home from work, we feel the potent mix of excitement and embarrassment that pulses through James as he sits next to her, thrilled to be there but too self-conscious to do more than grin and crank up the radio.
I was about to give up on Stewart after Twilight, in which her character seemed every bit as dead as her vampire boyfriend. But she regains the charm and cool-girl cred she displayed in Into the Wild with this well-directed performance.
James and Em aren’t the only people who grow close over the summer. The two hang out with the perpetually depressed Joel (a scene-stealing Martin Starr), whose mournful gaze makes his loneliness palpable even in the middle of a crowd. They also develop surprisingly close relationships with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a full-fledged adult who works at the park every summer. A married man who preys on a new crop of gullible girls each year, you might expect Connell to be a bad guy or a figure of fun, and he is a little of each. But Reynolds and Mottola make sure we also see his appeal – and his vulnerability.
The same goes for Lisa P. (Margarita Leveiva), the Madonna wannabe who is Adventureland’s universal object of desire. Refreshingly, she’s treated without the egregious ogling or spurned-suitor venom male filmmakers tend to revert to when portraying girls like this. Instead, James gets close enough to discover that she’s a perfectly nice girl whose looks are the most interesting thing about her.
We also get a sense of daily life in the park, including the scams the employees play to keep the customers from winning. We get a very funny Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the park’s owner/manager and his girlfriend; an excellent soundtrack that reminded me how much ‘80s music I actually liked; and at least one line that deserves to become a catchphrase: “Don’t ever eat the corn dogs.”
And then there are those potent moments that crystallize the characters’ feelings, which are the best part of a pretty great movie. Watching James and Joel drink beers and talk on a hillside at dusk while another friend runs around in the background, shouting and shooting off Roman candles, tells you all you need to know about the agitated state of suspended animation that is adolescence, American-style.