Both the intelligence and the malaise level in Adventureland are fairly high considering that the film is, deep in its bones, a barf-boner-and-bong teen comedy. The action is set in the summer of 1987 and will, in the popular mind, stamp out real memories of that year, just as American Graffiti overwrote the real 1950s.
Adventureland doesn't capture much of the essence of its time. The closest thing to political comment comes in a scene of the hero's drunken father snoring through the Iran-Contra hearings on TV. Sometimes, the film substitutes shots of Plymouth Dusters and AMC Gremlins for the more serious currents of the era.
Still, if it weren't that Apatowland and its suburbs were all about the frat-boy worldview, you could say that director Greg Mottola really took this perennial teen material to college. Mottola, of Superbad and The Daytrippers, is seasoned enough to realize that Holden Caulfield was sort of a snob.
James, the Caufieldish privileged student going to Columbia, is played by Jesse Eisenberg. Expecting a European tour after graduating high school, James gets an unhappy surprise. His father's money has run out, and James will have to land a job somewhere to pay for college. (If Adventureland is a success, part of it will be due to the timeliness of that kind of story.)
Right at the bottom of James' employees-wanted list is the amusement park Adventureland (actually Kennywood in West Mifflin, Penn.); when he gives up and applies, James is hired to work the carnival games. He is saved from trouble right off by Em (Kristen Stewart), a sharp but quiet girl who is heading to NYU.
During the summer, James deals with the local bullies and the dopes, as well as his childhood acquaintance and co-worker, a gross clown called Frigo (Matt Bush), who delights in sucker-punching James in the cubes. James finds better company with Martin Starr's Joel, a poverty-stricken intellectual whose delusions of being Sartre lead him to walk around smoking a pipe.
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play the couple running the amusement park. These two robust comic actors hold together the film's episodes as well as Bill Murray held together Caddyshack. As James becomes increasingly fond of Em, he fails to realize what we know: that she's carrying on with Mike (Ryan Reynolds), a handyman at the park, who is married.
In a sense, Eisenberg reprises his acting in The Squid and the Whale; his James has the same mix of sensitivity and clumsy, unexpected self-centeredness. Mottola includes a rather fine specimen of the adolescent brain fart. James tells Em that he wasn't in love the one time he got a chance to lose his virginity; James knew it wasn't love, because it wasn't what he had felt when he was reading Shakespeare's Sonnet 57. No matter how James really felt about the experience, this counts as a line he's feeding a girl. And Adventureland has enough dimension—and dimension isn't what you customarily get in Apatowland—to make us realize it is a line, no matter how much honesty is in it.
You can't blame James for exaggerating his feelings a little. Stewart broke out of the pack as the guitar-playing girl at the desert crash pad who almost seduces Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild. If Twilight is giving Stewart a worldwide audience, Adventureland proves why she is going places. She has the poise, the serenity and the slightly off-sync quality of the real star.
It is a surprise to see what she does with the part. Em isn't much of a construct on the script page—she bears some lingering pain about her mother's death from cancer, and that's why she suffers from low self-esteem. This is bad '80s novel motivation, but Stewart makes it work.
Superbad's amusing silliness gives way here to the perfect compromise: an apparently happy ending that is actually, if you think about it, an open ending.
'Adventureland' opens on Friday, April 3, at the Boulevard Cinemas (200 C St. at Petaluma Boulevard South, Petaluma; 707.762.7469) and the Century Regency 6 (280 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael; 415.479.5050).
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