Adventurland is the story of James Brennan, a recent college graduate with a noggin full of impeccable vocabulary and lofty esotericisms. When his father takes a pay cut at work, his trip to Europe is called off and his fall plans for grad school are put in jeopardy, leading him to a summer job at the local theme park whose name is the film’s title. There, of course, he falls in love, learns more about himself, and meets all kinds of wacky characters along the way in this refined coming of age comedy.
Setting aside (most of) the raunch and raucousness of 2007’s Superbad, writer/director Greg Mottola offers us a view of young adults that has become frighteningly rare in Hollywood. Grounded yet hopeful, with limited but sufficient resources, James and his love interest, Em, are relatable and realistic twenty-somethings, not overly ironic Napoleon Dynamites or vacuous shells like those found on NBC’s failed Quarterlife (does anyone even remember that show?). It’s hard to describe their trials without giving away much of the film’s draw, so let’s mostly take a look at the who instead of the what.
Jesse Eisenberg, who plays James, has a real talent for comedic dialogue. He delivers Mr. Mottola’s high-brow verbiage in a very plain spoken manner that, instead of boring us, makes sense of the wordsmith’s dizzying work. Mr. Eisenberg is basically picking up where Michael Cera ends. Both can do deadpan and do it well, but in Adventurland, Eisenberg breaks through that stolid mold to reveal James’s deeper conflict without ever letting up the Stan Laurel act.
The real hidden gem in the film is Kristen Stewart as Em. Unlike James, who at least had a life plan before his hopes were dashed, Em is still in college and going through a tortured identiy crisis. All ot once, Ms. Stewart is a bubbly townie, sophisticated undergrad, titlating seductress, and confused woman- child. These traits come out in waves throughout the plot, but the young actress manages to bring all of them to the forefront in every frame, underscoring how complex the formative years of Em’s adult life are.
SNL centerpieces Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig appear sporadically not only for extra padding in the laughter department but also as the only successful relationship in the film. As much as James and Em dream to become more than Bobby and Pauline (Hader and Wiig) who own the theme park, it is obvious that their love and partnership is the only example they can look up to. For philosophical exposition, we have Joel played by Martin Starr, whose wisdom is equaled only by his geekiness. Mr. Starr is somewhat bringing the same weird- kids-are-people-too charm he had on_ Freaks and Geeks_, and it is quite welcome here.
Technically, the film makes a great deal out of very little, particularly in the editing department. It is obvious that there were holes plugged up in the editing phase of this film, but we never feel like editor Anne McCabe and her team settled. Instead they pulled from a bag of tricks, namely re-recording audio over wide shots (this is all conjecture, but a trained eye will notice these things). Cinematographer Terry Stacey crafts some striking visuals, particularly in scenes that occur near a bridge that remind me of a common shot in many Woody Allen films, famously Manhattan.
On top of all of that, the film is sprinkled with wonderful nuance, such as James’s father’s implied alcoholism or Em’s father’s philandering at synagogue, of all places. This is not just a coming of age film in that this isn’t only interesting to people who are coming of age. This is an amazingly mature, layered piece that takes the form of a post-teen revelatory tale. I was personally pissed off when everyone glossed over Mr. Mottola’s efforts on Superbad (instead crediting the Judd Apatow cabal), so it is really nice to see him come into his own on this film. It has been a long time coming, but this should cement his place as a sought after talent, and we, as viewers, will be the benefactors for years to come.