COURTESY OF SIDNEY KIMMEL ENTERTAINMENT
“Superbad” director Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland” might look like another frivolous teen summer romp, yet its clever balance of lewd humor and poignant insight renders the film a charming stride of originality in an over-done genre.
Set in 1987, “Adventureland” chronicles a placid summer through the eyes of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent Oberlin College graduate armed with a Comparative Literature degree and a minor in self-loathing. James was supposed to join his friend on a European backpacking escapade, yet his alcoholic father’s job demotion and subsequent cut in salary forces him to axe the trip and also jeopardizes his fall entry into Columbia University’s graduate school.
Instead, James is forced to return to his suburban Pittsburgh home for the summer and work a dead-end job at Adventureland, a grimy amusement park where the games are fixed and the rides are death traps. Although he must trade Europe’s museums and churches for Adventureland’s stuffed pandas, hot-tempered parents and screaming, vomiting children, James undergoes a transformation marked by a fierce dose of reality. What he predicted to be the worst summer of his life, however, turns out to be quite the opposite.
James commiserates with Adventureland’s eclectic staff of other disillusioned youth, befriending self-proclaimed nihilist and Russian studies major Joel (Martin Starr) and mysterious, troubled NYU student Em (Kristen Stewart). James’ friendship with Em escalates to a quiet, nighttime relationship that begins as a drunken hookup under a bridge, yet becomes something deeper than James and Em ever anticipated. Prior to James’ arrival at Adventureland, Em partakes in a stealthy affair with Mike despite his wedding ring, but her investment in the affair dwindles as her feelings for James flourish.
The quirky setting and even quirkier ensemble of characters, from handyman/aspiring rocker Mike (Ryan Reynolds) to immature terror Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), establish an ideal dynamic for crude humor. Although Mottola takes advantage of this and cracks jokes involving puke, groin punches, alcohol, erections and weed, those searching for the crass humor of “Superbad” should look elsewhere. Instead, Mottola’s curiosities lie within the emotional and moral pressures operating in the transient, post-college years of his characters. “Adventureland” is a peculiar limbo for James, as it forces him to shed his arrogant attitude present early in the film and face the fact that his safety net, in financial and emotional terms alike, is gone.
“Adventureland” is different from its contemporaries largely due to its unorthodox aesthetic techniques - by college comedy standards - including predominately hand-held camera movement and frequently artistically composed mise-en-sc?ne. Unlike its Apatow predecessors, “Adventureland” habitually abandons the perspective of its male protagonist in favor of the female (Em, in this film’s case) and her distressed, complex life at home. The film’s additional settings - local dive bars, isolating bedrooms in parents’ homes and loitering-friendly outdoor locales - seem especially familiar for viewers currently navigating through these transient years.
Mottola’s nostalgia of his youth is palpable in the film through its charming ‘80s soundtrack (The Replacements, The Cure, Lou Reed, etc.) and hilariously tacky costumes, yet members of any generation will find the film familiar through the script’s blunt honesty and clever observations regarding young adulthood. “Adventureland” packs quite an unexpected punch, deftly illustrating just how successful a film can be when its brain is in sync with its heart.