Adventureland, written and directed by Superbad director Greg Mottola, opens tomorrow.
Adventureland is an 80s period flick that feels like a classic 80s movie, the kind of coming-of-age films I grew up on before puberty turned me ugly and bitter at the age of 17 and a half. It doesn’t do broad comedy as funny as Knocked Up or Superbad, but it never tries to. Instead, it harkens back to a period of filmmaking when you didn’t have to make the audience laugh every five minutes, because you had something to keep them entertained besides laughs – charm, a compelling story, real characters, and in this particular case, a certain glowy nostalgia. And it’s just nice to see a movie that’s more than jokey set pieces stuffed into pre-written scenes or comedians riffing on stock characters.
Dazed and Confused director Richard Linklater said not too long ago, “It’s tough. Unless it’s a tentpole, sequel, remake, or over-the-top comedy, the studios aren’t interested. The slightest level of irony or intelligence and, boom, you’re out of the league, you’re done.”
Luckily Mottola was in a unique and charmed position: coming off Superbad, a movie he directed for hire that ended up grossing $170 million worldwide on a $20 million budget. He’d had his semi-autobiographical script for Adventureland ready to go all along, but Superbad gave him the clout to shop it around until he found someone who’d let him do it the way he wanted. The result is a sort of indie-major, a movie made for less than $10 million with neither arthouse pretensions nor blockbuster gloss.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the Mottola character, James, a pretentious wannabe writer and virgin who’s just graduated college. His parents renege on the graduation money they’d promised him, and his plan to backpack through Europe falls through. Stuck living with his parents in Pittsburgh, with no work experience and only book larnin’, the only job he can get is as a glorified carny working the squirt-the-water-in-the-clown’s-mouth game (by the way, have you noticed that game is everywhere, and yet makes no rational sense?) at Adventureland, a theme-park based on the real-life Adventureland in Long Island where Mottola worked in the mid-80s. Thus James joins a motley crüe of townies that includes his bosses, a husband and wife team played by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, fellow loser Martin Starr, cool older musician guy (and maintenance man) Ryan Reynolds, and dual love interests: broody, complex Em (played by Kristen Stewart) and the town hottie Lisa P (Margarita Levieva). Even though Eisenberg’s James is sort of awkward and unlikable, he makes fast friends on account of him having weed (a parting gift from his college roommate), and soon finds himself in a love tangle between Stewart (the girl he hopes will pop his man cherry but who’s boning the married Ryan Reynolds), and Lisa P.
It’s easy to tell when someone’s writing about something they know, as opposed to pro comic writers trying to crowbar jokes about tampons or jizz beer into a paint-by-numbers rom-com. Like world travel or pedophilia, the fun of Adventureland is in the little details: having to hear “Rock Me Amadeus” over the theme-park sound system 12 times a day, or gluing the hats onto the mannequins in the knock-the-hat-off-the-mannequin game to keep people from winning a giant stuffed panda. The jokes grow organically from the plot.
If the movie has one flaw, well, I won’t mince words: it’s Kristen Stewart. It’s almost unfair to knock the movie because of how bad her character sucks, because in a lot of ways, she is true to life. It makes complete sense that that a naïve, wannabe intellectual like James would fall for the “broody” chick who listens to Hüsker Dü and says bitchy things to her stepmom; he confuses her sullen act with actual depth. But it’s hard to detect where James’ infatuation and Mottola’s diverge, and impossible not root against their budding romance. Not to mention, Stewart has played this sullen, wounded dove character in every movie now and I’m sick of it. It feels like we’re expected to identify with her problems, but really it’s just annoying watching her act like she’s the first person ever to have problems.
Stewart was 17 when they shot the film and the producers fought to get her cast, even though having to work around the rules of shooting with a minor caused all sorts of headaches. It’s a shame, because she’s easily the weakest part of an otherwise solid cast. Eisenberg nails the lead, Ryan Reynolds has an awesome role as a sort of hybrid mentor/a-hole, the aforementioned Hader and Wiig are brilliant as always, and Knocked Up alum Martin Starr does an excellent job as James’ new friend, whom life seems to constantly crap on. I don’t understand why Starr’s compatriot Jay Baruchel gets all the offers when it’s Starr who seems by far the more versatile of the two (i.e., he doesn’t play the same gee-whiz douche in every movie).
Stewart aside, Adventureland is the rare movie that ignores genre restrictions without being a pretentious, reactionary masturbation (I’m looking at you, JCVD). It’s just good old storytelling. Remember that?