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Movie Review: Adventureland

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Billed as the follow-up to director Greg Mottola's deliriously funny 2007 film Superbad, I can't help but feel that Adventureland will feel like a disappointment by many coaxed in by the marketing campaign promising more of the same. Anyone going into Adventureland expecting another broad comedy from the guy who did Superbad, featuring Van Wilder, Bill Hader, Kristin Wiig, and the chick from Twilight, may be upset to learn that they were led astray. Because while Adventureland is undoubtedly a comedy, one that manages to be quite funny at times, it's not the film portrayed by its marketing. So be forewarned: even if you loved Superbad, this might not be the film for you.

On the flip side, if you didn't care for Superbad, or never had a desire to see it, then there's a good chance you'll enjoy Adventureland quite a bit. Its humour is more subtle than Mottola's last film, with its lightly comedic tone admirably balancing the fine line between comedy and drama throughout. Set in suburban Pittsburgh in the 1980s, Adventureland is the nostalgic retelling of Mottola's coming of age summer, with Jesse Eisenberg standing in for the director as James Brennan and Kristen Stewart as his first significant love Em Lewin, the girl he meets when forced to work at a dingy amusement park to earn money for school. I saw the film a week ago, enjoying it immensely, with my opinion of the film growing with each passing day as I recall the experience more and more fondly as the contents settle in my brain.

Which is to say that I'm already feeling nostalgic for watching a movie that trades heavily on nostalgia for its low-key charms. It's a lot like one of my all-time favourite films Almost Famous, in that it makes me feel nostalgic for a past I never had, for the universal ways it touches on the experience of being young at a certain time and place. And while I was never a recent college graduate working at an amusement park in 1987, many of the experiences in the film rang true for me, echoing some of my own as a young man a decade later.

I may never have worked as a carny in a rundown amusement park, but I did spend my late high school/early college years working in family fun centres similar to Chuck E. Cheese's. So I could relate to the feeling of working a shitty, go nowhere job for little money, serving terrible people and their terrible kids. It definitely sucked; but oddly, it was still pretty great. Not because there was a lot of fun to be had with the actual job, but rather because places like that require large staffs of people willing to work for minimum wage. No, I don't mean illegal immigrants — I mean young people. Thus, when not dealing with the shit that the job throws at you, you're basically getting paid to hang out with friends, feel superior to your customers, and hook up with co-workers. Which probably explains why I spent so much time at those jobs, even when I wasn't on the clock.

It also partially explains why I loved Adventureland so much, but I think you'll enjoy it even if it didn't mirror some of your life experiences as much as it mirrored my own, as it taps into something elemental about that time of your life. It's infused with a deep sense of melancholy throughout, with enough warmth that it doesn't devolve into an intolerable exercise in vanity or navel-gazing. It can be a tough balancing act when dramatizing your own memories and experiences on screen, and Mottola wisely gives enough of his film over to the supporting cast and setting, rather than making Eisenberg the hero he never got to be in real life. It's been pointed out elsewhere, but it's worth mentioning that this is the second time Eisenberg has been cast as the younger self of the director/writer of the movie he's in (previously playing a semi-fictional version of a young Noah Baumbach in The Squid and the Whale). I enjoyed him a lot more this time out, and not just because his character is less of an intolerable prick.

He and Stewart exhibit enough chemistry to invest in their budding relationship, although the film could've used more on her character. Martin Starr was a highlight as Eisenberg's work buddy Joel, another bookish, harmlessly pretentious character along the lines of his work in Freaks and Geeks and Party Down. Hader and Wiig play characters similar to their work in various films and Saturday Night Live, only with zaniness turned way down. I love them both, but both have the tendency to go too far with the idiosyncrasies of their characters (a danger of live sketch comedy I imagine), but not here. By playing down the craziness in their characters, they achieve the best laugh of the film when finally getting a chance to go off.

Most surprising was Ryan Reynolds as the park stud Mike Connell — a guy who seems like the coolest guy in the film, until you realize that anyone that age still working in such a dead end environment and doing the things he does is actually a loser. Reynolds is able to hint at that disparity beneath his confident air, giving his character a level of self-awareness not typically attributed to his type. In most similar films, Connell would be the villain of the film that our hero James finally puts in his place. In Adventureland, there are no villains: just people who do some shitty things, and the emotional consequences of their actions.

So while it's bad news for people looking for the next Superbad, I wholeheartedly recommend Adventureland to those looking for a coming of age comedy that trades belly laughs for truer emotions. It's a great, warm little film about the best worst job you've ever had, the endless summer we all wish we had, and the awkward phase when your problems were largely small, but felt like the world. It's a past I enjoyed visiting for a couple hours, and I suspect I will revisit again through several future viewings.

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