Miramax executives had a tough decision to make: Having financed Greg (Superbad) Mottola’s third feature-length project, which turned out to be a 100 percent raunch-free coming-of-age romance, would they market it as the tender, semiautobiographical tale that it is? Or would they abandon every principle of truth in advertising and con the public into believing Mottola made Superbad 2? You can smell their pants burning from here.
So, first things first. Mottola’s 1996 debut, The Daytrippers, followed a dysfunctional Long Island family on a darkly comic drive into Manhattan. Superbad followed 11 years later and bore zero resemblance to that picture or to virtually any other movie ever made. It was a phenomenon that spawned countless knock-offs. Adventureland is not one of them.
Do not be deceived by the trailer, one-sheets or TV ads. Don’t jump to conclusions based on the presence of many regulars of Judd Apatow movies in the cast, including Martin Starr, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (Apatow produced Superbad). Never mind that this is a saga featuring a fair number of twentysomething slackers, or that much weed is inhaled.
If you see Adventureland anticipating Superbad-style laughs, you will be doomed to bitter disappointment. If, by contrast, you’re open to an occasionally quirky, frequently predictable, yet intermittently affecting story of young love, you probably won’t feel like your life has been changed — but you’re unlikely to end up asking for your money back, either.
Jesse Eisenberg — best known for his work in The Squid and the Whale — stars as James, a recent college graduate who’s waited all year for the summer of ’87 and a trip across Europe with his best friend. Devastated by the news that his father’s been demoted and can no longer afford to underwrite either his travels or his planned studies at Columbia journalism school, he finds himself trying to amass his own college fund by taking a job at a third-rate suburban amusement park operated by a husband-and-wife team played by Hader and Wiig.
Here, naturally, he meets a motley assortment of characters, though not necessarily interesting or unfamiliar. There’s Frigo (Matt Bush), for example. His sole comic contribution is to punch James in the crotch every time he encounters him. Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) is the ditzy park sexpot after whom most of the male staff lusts. Among them is Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the slick maintenance guy who perpetuates the legend that he once jammed with Lou Reed and doesn’t let his wedding ring get in the way of staff flings. All in all, not a terribly memorable or gut-busting bunch.
A notch above are Hader and Wiig, whose characters are so penny-pinching that they sew their own arcade toys and rig games so customers don’t stand a chance. Starr embodies perhaps the film’s most entertaining creation, a pipe-smoking dweeb named Joel who quotes Plato while showing James the ropes. The movie’s funniest scene may well be one where Eisenberg visits Starr at his parents’ home. Stopped at the front door, the guest is informed, “I can’t bear to let you see the inside of my house. There’s plastic on the furniture. Meet me at the back door.”
But the heart and soul of the picture is the relationship that blossoms over the course of the summer between James, a 22-year-old virgin, and Em (Kristen Stewart), a sassy, sad-eyed young woman with considerably more experience than he, and issues that Mottola’s script never quite gets around to spelling out.
They’re an unlikely match. She’s out of his league and he knows it. What Em seems to know is that a break from smooth operators is exactly what the doctor ordered at this point in her life. James is just the breath of fresh air, innocence and geekiness she needs, and the two grow close, tentatively and touchingly.
Both are fine young performers, and their personal charm, I suspect, goes a long way toward lending the hookup an appeal it might not have on the page. Interestingly, Mottola is renowned as a filmmaker with a gift for bringing out the best in his actors. But Adventureland proves to be a case of two up-and-coming stars making their director and his material look far better than they otherwise would.