Hard Lessons, Within Sight Of The Bumper Cars

Jesse Eisenberg i i

hide captionGame Face: When his family's finances collapse, James (Jesse Eisenberg) spends what was supposed to be a European-idyll summer working at a run-down amusement park.

Abbot Genser/Miramax Films
Jesse Eisenberg

Game Faces: James (Jesse Eisenberg) and Joel (Martin Starr) wait out a summer working at Adventureland.

Abbot Genser/Miramax Films

Adventureland

  • Director: Greg Mottola
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Running Time: 107 minutes

Rated: R for language and sexual content

(Recommended)

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Kristen Stewart i i

hide captionGreat Escape: Em (Kristen Stewart) works at the park as a way to get away from her family.

Abbot Genser/Miramax Films
Kristen Stewart

Great Escape: Em (Kristen Stewart) works at the park as a way to get away from her family.

Abbot Genser/Miramax Films

Chick Flick Or Dude Movie?

Monkey See blogger Linda Holmes parses the Adventureland trailer, concluding that it is 59.5 percent dude-targeted. Don't believe her?

I expected good things from Adventureland, the new comedy from Greg Mottola — writer-director of the delightful indie comedy The Daytrippers and the crushingly funny blockbuster Superbad.

But I didn't expect a quiet, confident, deeply felt coming-of-age movie; a beautifully realized period piece rife with sociological insight; and the most delicately buoyant romance since Richard Linklater's masterly Before Sunset.

To those who complain that mainstream American movies aren't grown-up enough anymore, here comes a curious reply: They are. It's just that they're masking themselves as goofball stoner comedies about freaks and geeks.

The marketing of Adventureland promises yuks of the Apatow Factory/nostalgic-nerd-chic variety, complete with vintage font on the posters, ironic moustaches on the supporting cast and enough groovy duds to open a hipster boutique.

The soundtrack, too, seems designed for instant embrace by the ultra-jaded Juno set, with period pop both silly (Poison, Whitesnake, "Rock Me Amadeus") and sublime (The Velvet Underground, The Cure, "Satellite of Love").

But Mottola does with these neo-teen flick trappings what Howard Hawks did with cowboy and gangster tropes: deploys them as the vehicle for personal expression, a codified form open to humanism, curiosity and play.

Set in mid-'80s Pennsylvania, the story focuses on precocious college graduate James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, late of The Squid and the Whale), whose plans for a European summer and a New York-grad-school fall get thwarted when his parents find themselves financially downsized.

So James takes a summer job at Adventureland, a rundown theme park — and ready-made metaphor for life's distractions, cockeyed dreams and shabby absurdities. Home to an oddball menagerie of dorks, sluts, yuppies, anal-retentive managers and self-proclaimed "existential nihilists," Adventureland is almost too good a setting.

In fact Mottola comes perilously close to comedic grotesquerie, but never quite crosses the line, pulling back from cheap shots and easy laughs. In fact Adventureland is more amusing than outright funny; part of the movie's wondrous energy comes from the feeling that it's about to erupt in hilarity that never quite arrives, a sense of restraint that's aligned to Mottola's more delicate agenda and the subtly affecting performances he draws from his cast.

On paper, Adventureland is merely another teen comedy about losing your virginity over one magic summer. On screen, though, this trajectory plays out with a lightness of touch that fairly catches your breath.

James (like the audience) falls under the spell of Em (Kristen Stewart), a bewitching, outspoken girl marked by melancholy and resignation beyond her years. Her bond with James is complicated by a sad affair she sustains with a married burnout named Mike (Ryan Reynolds), a handyman at Adventureland and serial philanderer.

Developed with a pitch-perfect ear for talk and a faultless eye for the body language of acutely self-conscious lovers, the budding romance at the film's center is subject to some of the usual setbacks and pratfalls of the genre — little jealousies, fumbled seductions, fragile misunderstandings.

But it's rooted in steady observation and an unhurried interest in the fleeting textures of these characters' lives. Mottola sketches in their family lives with deft, concise strokes, showing us the shortcomings of adulthood (alcoholism, neurotic attachments) that loom before James and Em like possible warning signs. Adventureland is blessedly free of cynicism. "You don't owe me anything," Em declares after a rough patch with James. "I want to owe you things," comes the reply — and with it, a puppy-love tenderness scarcely seen onscreen since the heyday of the John Hughes movie.

The vulnerability and imperiled optimism of Adventureland make it very much a movie of its moment. The poise and humanity of its vision make it much, much more. (Recommended)

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