Playing for keeps
The thing to know about “Adventureland” is not just that it has goals above its station but that it actually achieves them. With the help of a talented cast led by Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart and a potent soundtrack, writer-director Greg Mottola has taken that most overdone of contemporary genres, the coming-of-age story, and made it engaging, bittersweet and even fun.
It’s been more than a decade since Mottola made his independent film debut with the underappreciated “The Daytrippers,” and though he’s had success as a toiler-for-hire in the Judd Apatow vineyards, directing both series television and “Superbad,” it’s good to see him back with a noticeably well-written film that has a genuine charm to it.
That doesn’t mean that “Adventureland” reinvents the wheel. The outlines of the film’s first-love plot are nothing if not familiar, and trace elements of best-forgotten genre conventions like gross-out scenarios and parents who are either losers or hopeless fools still remain.
What we get instead of something completely new is a demonstration of what the genre looks like when the wheel is custom-made. Character and dialogue are more important to the film’s success than its plot, and though we can see where the story is headed well before the people who are living it, “Adventureland’s” recognizable satisfactions feel well earned.
Mottola has set “Adventureland” in 1987, at a time when the writer-director was himself working in a venue similar to Kennywood, the park in Pittsburgh where the film was shot. It also adds to the substance of the story that its protagonists are old enough to either be in college or actually out of it, even though by taking a job at Adventureland they are, in the words of one employee, “doing the work of pathetic lazy morons.”
This is definitely not the way James Brennan (Eisenberg) expected to be spending the summer between college graduation and a fall semester at New York’s Columbia Journalism School. An awkward, brainy guy who reads poetry for pleasure and has idealistically remained a virgin because he doesn’t want to divorce sex from love, James thought he’d be in Europe, the home of “sexually permissive cultures,” but his father’s financial reverses mandate a summer job.
Making things worse, James’ employment experience, highlighted by his work for the Gordian Knot, the college literary magazine, is so feeble he’s “not qualified for manual labor.” So off he goes to Adventureland, where the games of chance are rigged, the rides make you throw up and anyone who can walk or chew gum can get a job.
James’ co-workers, played by an expert group of performers, were cast by Ann Goulder both for their acting skills and fine comic sensibilities. “Saturday Night Live’s” Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play gung-ho park managers Bobby and Paulette; Martin Starr is Slavic studies nihilist Joel; Margarita Levieva is the classically desirable Lisa P; Ryan Reynolds is the park handyman Connell, handsome and married; and, finally, Stewart is the beautiful, enigmatic and very experienced Em. Though the audience, if not Em and James, will know from the first exchange of glances that something is in the air between these two, it is a tribute to the skills of both Eisenberg, excellent as the older son in “The Squid and the Whale,” and Stewart, equally good as the ethereal Bella in “Twilight,” that this relationship between opposites comes off as believable and attractive.
Em and James, he with his weakness for always being a beat behind life and she with her complicated emotional situation, are not obvious soul mates. But “Adventureland’s” greatest strength is that it makes you see and believe in the yearning romantic potential these two see in each other. Stewart, who has a gift for investing completely in her characters, brings so much intensity to her part that she turns this nominally guy-centric venture on its head by making Em’s problems the film’s most compelling.
Initially “Adventureland” does seem like it gives with one hand and takes away with the other. On the plus side, its nearly 40-song soundtrack is expertly chosen to include everyone from the Replacements to the Velvet Underground, yet its determination to sporadically offer standard-issue humiliation humor is wearing. But with a cast that believed in one another and a writer-director who believed he didn’t have to follow up “Superbad” with “SuperEvenBadder,” “Adventureland” is the kind of adventure we could all use more of.
MPAA rating: R, for language, drug use and sexual references
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: in general release