Don’t be misled by the resume of Adventureland‘s writer/director Greg Mottola. He is best known for directing the super-raunch-fest Superbad, the amazingly foul-mouthed comedy that took teen sex comedies to a new level. Adventureland is still about geeky virginal love, but it strips away the sight gags, the crass language, and, truthfully, a lot of the laughs. Adventureland is left with the sweet and admittedly a little sad center of the drama that is young love.
Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale) play James Brennan, a cute intellectual kid thrown straight from college into a huge reality check. Because of a job change, his parents suddenly can’t afford to give him that graduation gift of a ticket to Europe, and he may even have to rethink grad school because they can’t afford it. So James has to swallow his pride and get a summer job… whatever job he can get. And since coddled college kids of his ilk often have never had to work, the best job his resume can give him is a job at Adventureland, a past-its-prime Pittsburgh amusement park with rickety rides and bleak, never-win games of skill.
Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) thinks he’s “a games man,” so he is assigned to the less glamorous role of manning the booths while the cooler kids get to work the rides. But, as in many of these low-paying time-killing jobs, James finds some cool kids to hang out with, namely pipe-smoking nerd Joel (Martin Starr), and scrappy gal Em (Kristen Stewart). Em, with her tousled no-nonsense hair, sarcastic demeanor, and edgy musical taste (there’s a nice soundtrack of Lou Reed, The Replacements, and Yo La Tengo), soon becomes James’s crush, and the feeling seems to be mutual.
Anyone who has had a crappy, low-paying summer job (and I hope that is everyone) will recognize the drama in Adventureland. There is the cool older maintenance guy Connell (Ryan Reynolds) who flirts (and more) with all the younger girls, even though he is married; there’s the park’s Hot Chick Lisa P (Margarita Levieva) whom all the guys lust after; there’s the dim parking attendant; the lecherous and sweaty comic relief dude; the girl who will drunkenly make out with a guy that she wouldn’t be caught dead dating, etc. The fact that this film takes place in 1987 doesn’t change the timeless caricatures, and it is only the lack of cellphones and the insertion of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (swoon) into a romantic moment that occasionally reminds the viewer that the story takes place in the 80s.
Jesse Eisenberg is an appealing smart dork, playing the “cutest and funniest guy [Em’s] ever met”… but it is Kristen Stewart as Em that steals every scene she’s in. If only there were more teenage/early 20-something female characters as complex and interesting (and realistic) as Em. She’s a college kid with a past that is hinted at, but not entirely revealed. James knows that he is way less experienced than her, in life and sex, but doesn’t blink in pursuing her with pure love as his motive. And as a result, jaded Em is thrown, afraid to risk the emotional intimacy that she has always held at arm’s length. Her character has sad eyes beyond her youthful beauty, which is a metaphor for Adventureland itself. Much more than a coming-of-age sex comedy, it’s a refreshingly three-dimensional portrayal of the drama and pains of that first love, from the time in our lives when a summer seemed to last forever.