Glancing at the premise for this retro, semi-autobiographical yarn from Superbad director Greg Mottola you would be forgiven for assuming that this is the first of many knock-offs taken from the current king of comedy, Judd Apatow, at the hands of his very own mini-me (sort of what happened to Eli Roth after he started banging around with QT). You would be mistaken. For while this does retain some of his mentor’s stoner sensibilities, it breaks free from the vein of crudeness and bromantic shackles that have come to define the Apatow brand, electing instead to keep things sweet and simple, a decision which ultimately serves this movie very well.
Ironically thanks in large part to the aforementioned Apatow and the catapult that was Superbad, the shadow of Michael Cera looms large over indie starlet, and Mottola stand-in, Jesse Eisenberg; the ganglyness, the knowing deadpan delivery, and the comedic awkward pause. Comparisons are inevitable, but to be fair to Eisenberg, he did it first and he does it better. Here Eisenberg offers a furrowed brow intensity to the comically serious James Brennan, whose dreams of a summer in Europe followed by grad school in New York are hacked off at the knees by his alcoholic father’s professional woes. Singularly unqualified for the most menial of positions (he majored in comparative lit) he’s forced to take a position of servility operating a games booth at a ramshackle Pittsburgh amusement park. There, amidst the unwashed and the unwanted he meets the edgy, alluring, but hopelessly damaged Em (Kristen Stewart) and traverses ye olde sea of summertime love.
While the stage is set for an easily digestible, throwaway coming-of-age story complete with fortune cookie life lessons and a renewed sense of optimism as the master of one’s future, Adventureland is much smarter than that. Mixing a multitude of colors to his narrative palette Mottola has a singular grasp of the idea that growing up is not something that happens in that “one summer I’ll never forget blah blah blah,” but something that’s ongoing for years, perhaps even decades. He also nails dead on that bubble-like buffer zone of the college years that result in a delayed flowering for so many, when the law considers you a mature adult but circumstance dictates you’re really little more than a child who drives.
With life-experience that wouldn’t fill a thimble but a cynical, depressed outlook that would embarrass Robert Smith, James is the perfect embodiment of sheltered confusion. Proudly displaying the fact that he recently had his heart broken by a girl (they dated for eleven days) like a badge of honor, and pleased as punch about his mix-tape of “bummer songs,” James is at that point in life we all hit, where it is so important to be grown up we forget that we actually have to grow-up first. This is symptomatic of everyone at Adventureland, which seems to be filled with disgruntled hormone bombs going off in every direction. James likes Em, but is also drawn to alluring but virginal park hottie Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva). Joel (Martin Starr), who reads Russian literature and affects a pipe has been dating Paulette (Kristen Wiig), but now she’s suddenly rejecting him. Em, meanwhile, can’t tell if she likes James because she’s caught up in a fling with Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the older, married park mechanic who is something of a hero around the parts because he once jammed with Lou Reed.
But the soap opera stylings are tempered with some fine comic performances from the likes of Matt Bush as James’ gloriously immature Tommy. Once he and James were best friends but now their relationship consists primarily of him punching James in the nutsack at every opportunity. Then there is Bill Hader as park manager Bobby, whose periodic raging at park patrons serve as a constant reminder to the rest of the staff just exactly where they’re headed. All these antics are set against the backdrop soundtrack filled to the brim with irresistible eighties classics while the park staff self-medicate and try desperately to forget where it is that they are.
What really serves to set Adventureland apart though are the two central performances of Jesse Eisenbrg and Kristen Stewart. For Stewart this final pre-Twilight role serves to remind us what a promising up-and-comer she was before she got unintentionally hitched to this teen phenomenon that she’ll likely never be able to escape. For Eisenberg it’s another wonderfully understated misfit on the verge of manhood. Permanently bewildered with an earnestness that almost bursts through his chest he’s an actor who can say more with a silent nod of the head than others can with pages and displays an acute understanding that the pivotal transformative moments in life are largely internal. Most crucially, come the end of the summer, very little is resolved in the traditional teen movie sense. The problems that were there before are still there, and none of the characters appear to have changed much, which given that it has only been one summer is how it should be. But as far as coming-of-age flicks go is remarkably refreshing.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
This Blu-ray disc features an embarrassment of riches on the deleted scene front; especially considering it’s a single disc edition. In addition to the now customary digital copy there is a commentary featuring director Greg Mottola and Jesse Eisenberg and a detailed making-of featurette outling the casting and location shooting. The disc also offers the opportunity to skip backward and forward through the soundtrack to the appropriate scene.
Exclusive to Blu-ray are several small featurettes; Matt Bush offers a guide to nutsack punching, and the forms, the styles, and the tactics that go with it. Margarita Levieva offers the "Lisa P. Guide to Style" whereby she explains just how best to rock that bubblegum, those scrunches, and those bright disco colors. Finally there is a very funny mock orientation video outlining the park’s conflict resolution strategy and its drug policy.
"Adventureland" is on sale August 25, 2009 and is rated R. Comedy. Written and directed by Greg Mottola. Starring Bill Hader, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Kristen Wiig, Matt Bush, Ryan Reynolds.