Posted on Friday, April 3rd, 2009 by David Chen
Greg Mottola’s Superbad was a massive hit, grossing well over $100 million domestically on a relatively modest $20 million budget. It hilariously portrayed the alcohol-, drug-, and sex-driven adventures of a group of high schoolers (and a few cops), but its emotional core was unmistakable: The sweet friendship between Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) was what held the film together. Now for his follow-up, Adventureland, Mottola is working off his own script, and has focused his gaze in a slightly different direction: post-adolescent romance. But with fewer dick jokes and more post-college angst, does Adventureland deliver the laughs and/or the emotion that we’ve come to expect?
In summer 1987, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college and is looking forward to a tour of Europe and a bright future at the Columbia Journalism School. Unfortunately, due to some unfortunate occupational changes, his parents (Wendie Malick and Jack Gilpin) find themselves unable to pay for his trip. James is thus forced to take a low-paying job at the local amusement park, Adventureland. While he initially balks at the idea, the colorful characters he meets there, and the co-worker he falls in love with, Em (Kristen Stewart), promise to make it one of the most memorable summers he’s ever had.
It’s hard for me to put into words precisely why I love this film. What I know is that Mottola is thoroughly skilled at capturing the perils of suburban ennui and the excitement that comes from the mundane minutiae of dating. The details of amusement park life are also lovingly rendered. I was left with the feeling that the director not only thoroughly knows his source material, but knows how to bring out the idiosyncrasies of both the situations and the people in a way that’s funny and tender.
It doesn’t hurt that the performances are uniformly excellent. Eisenberg’s James is full of wanderlust, but he still manages to capture the perfect mix of meticulous precision, nervous awkwardness, and plain old sweetness that make him worth rooting for. His performance grounds the film, but each of the other quirky characters also get their moments to shine. Ryan Reynolds is characteristically great in the role of Connell, the kind of creepy, kind of pathetic amusement park repairman. I was also a huge fan of Martin Starr as Joel, who subtly captures the seething sexual frustration that’s always lurking under the surface of his character. And of course, there’s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, who steal the show as the sheltered couple who run Adventureland.
And then there’s the matter of Kristen Stewart.
The biggest thing that baffles me about Stewart is the massive gulf between her on-screen charisma, and her off-screen persona. Check out this appearance Stewart did on Letterman to promote Twilight, in which she appears to be part-catatonic, part-nervously excited, and part-completely unaware of what is going on around her (Fast forward to around 4:15 to see where Letterman completely rips into an apparently-oblivious Stewart):
Watching this clip (after seeing her in the thoroughly mediocre Twilight), it’s hard to see an actress with a promising career ahead of her, but Stewart is absolutely irresistible in Adventureland as the romantic interest that’s full of self-loathing. Em is a mess, a girl who realizes the emotional havoc her actions are wreaking, yet is simultaneously helpless to stop them. At the same time, Stewart exudes a quiet sexiness and an understated vulnerability such that you can’t help but fall in love with her. In other words, you can totally see why James would subject himself to the things that he does in pursuit of Stewart’s Em.
There’s a lot of other stuff to like about Adventureland, such as its fantastic soundtrack and its 1980s feel and look. But above all, Adventureland is a film about the trails and tribulations of young love. It’s a touching coming-of-age tale that has a heart and soul. And it proves that Greg Mottola doesn’t need Mitch Hurwitz, Judd Apatow, or Seth Rogen to make you laugh.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10