Adventureland (dir/scr: Greg Mottola)
Adventureland is more than just a chintzy theme park outside of Pittsburg, where college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) spends a summer trying to save money for graduate school. It’s the real world adventures of life in the space between college and independence, that place where you think that you’re an adult but have yet to live outside of the bubble.
Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical coming of age comedy is as smart and perceptive as they come. It could be Superbad four years later, where the smart kid has embraced college and left his high-school world and identity far behind. College grad James reads poetry for pleasure, has been accepted to post-grad journalism school at Columbia and plans a summer bopping around Europe with his college buddies. Until his parents break the bad news: Dad has been demoted (this is the pre-downsizing generation) and the once upper-middle-class lifestyle loses a prefix. The European summer romp becomes a working vacation and he’s pulled back into the working class environs that he thought he left behind. If he’d given it any thought at all, that is. James hasn’t been all that aware of class and it’s clear that he got through college without a part-time job or work study. He’s unqualified for any job but Adventureland, a rickety park just a few notches above a county fair midway, and he’s sized up immediately by the park manager (Bill Hader, behind a mustache that deserves its own screen credit) as a “games” man, working rigged games in the midway, where “nobody wins a big-ass panda.”
As long as we’re tossing around comparisons, then think the cultural flashback of Dazed and Confused moved up a decade. It’s 1987 and park security is lax; one guy slips in with a knife that would impress Crocodile Dundee and he flashes it to James to get one of those big-ass pandas. But it’s not a total loss: he gets a great story and a memorable introduction to Emily “Em” Lewin (Kristen Stewart), short for Emily. Stewart has become the smart/cool/slightly sad teen sweetheart of the moment, thanks to her work in films like Into the Wild and Twilight. It has less to do with her outward appearance than a sometimes still, sometimes squirrelly presence that suggests such a complicated emotional life under the surface. She’s about the only thing that makes working the park bearable. Eisenberg suggests a guy who may have been a high school nerd and discovered in college that ambition and intelligence are actually pretty admirable qualities. He may be back in a social world he thought he left behind, but he arrives with a confidence in who he is. Only his literature-strewn conversation and dry sense of humor doesn’t connect with his fellow summer jobbers, most of them working class young adults who land here every year. Em is the only one who appreciates him. And she really appreciates his stash of joints (a going away present from his Europe-bound college buds), taking him out to the amusement park graveyard of broken rides and spare parts to get high and watch the lights. And talk. They have things on their minds and in their hearts that need to get worked through.
If Adventureland isn’t as funny as Mottola’s previous film Superbad, that’s hardly a criticism. The comedy is more organic, less extreme, lived in. When Em’s parents arrive home and catch James and Em making out on the couch, James leaps up and holds a pillow in front of him for the ensuing conversation. It’s not played for sex comedy farce but young adult discomfort, without the slapstick or the verbal jabs you get in the usual sex comedy. It’s funny, it awkward, its uncomfortable, and Apatow doesn’t feel the need to draw your attention to any one of those textures more than the other.
Mottola suggests the time and culture without falling into the cliché of the jukebox soundtrack of year-specific hits. “Rock Me Amadeus” drones on the amusement park PA so often that it threatens to drive some of the employees insane, but when the James and Em and the others slip back into their personal spaces, the soundtrack reflects their lives, not the current top forty. The music of their lives reaches back to the seventies; it’s their lifeline when they escape the job and need to reclaim their identity.
That identity is what Adventureland is about. They may be technically adults, but their social behavior hasn’t matured much beyond high school, except from reaching drinking age and leaving curfews behind. They try to act older and more mature, but most of them seem trapped in definitions formed long before. They don’t really see change in their future, and don’t seem to aspire to anything. Case in point: Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the film’s answer to a Jersey Girl. She’s the gum-chewing park babe with big hair and her T-shirt tied into a halter top who happily shimmies the downtime with her best friend to the whatever hit song is blasting over the park public address system in all its tinny glory. Her aspirations are limited by a lack of imagination and education, but Mottola isn’t condescending to her. She’s not a figure of ridicule or pity. Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the park maintenance guy and the elder statesmen of underachievers and geeks, is a little more complicated,. The geeks appreciate that this cool guy treats them as a co-worker, and the underachievers sit in awe of his way with the babes. The fact that he’s a married man and carries on affairs with girls ten years younger than him, impressing them with his side gig as a bar band guitarist and lies about jamming with Lou Reed, doesn’t seem to dim their favor. He really likes James and gives him kid genuine advice. Whether it’s helpful is another question, but it is sincere, which is all the more curious because James is smitten with Em and Mike is the reason she’s so careful about getting too involved James. He’s a bit pathetic, but Mottola doesn’t feel the need to call him out on it. He’s just another life lesson for James.
Greg Mottola made a strong feature debut in 1996 with The Daytrippers, a generous take on the dysfunctional family/scramble through the city comedy with a warm and respectful sense of humor and sense of character, but his career retreated into television until Superbad in 2008, where he brought his warmth and his character-based humor to the coming-of-age sex comedy. Adventureland is more than simply the next chapter of Superbad. It’s a coming-of-age story about relationships and responsibility and identity, written with an empathy for all the characters and directed with a sharp eye for telling detail and a sensitivity to honest social behavior and cruel social double standards. Because, despite the social currency of the term, coming-of-age doesn’t necessarily refer to sex. Sometimes it really is about growing up.