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Movie Review: Adventureland

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I was not as impressed with director Greg Mottola's Superbad as many others seemed to be. I enjoyed it, but I wasn't able to shake the feeling that there was something missing. It didn't quite pull off the balancing act necessary to make both the funny and the poignant work; Jonah Hill can't really carry a movie, and I was never able to truly buy into the chemistry between him and Michael Cera. When compared to Juno, 2007's reigning king (or, more aptly, queen) of teen comedy, it certainly fell short.

That's why Adventureland is such an exciting movie. Not only does it display remarkable growth on Mottola's part, it also shows promise for other Age of Apatow comedies not actually produced by Judd Apatow. Apatow had a hand in Superbad, but despite the appearances of collaborators Martin Starr, Bill Hader, and Kristen Wiig, he had nothing to do with Adventureland. Even though this undeniably feels like an Apatow product, it's able to stand on its own as a fully realized film, one that could go toe-to-toe with any of Apatow's work (unlike, say, this year's amusing but disappointing I Love You, Man).

These kinds of movies are obsessed with coming of age, whether it be as a schlubby stoner or as an emotionally retarded man-child, but Adventureland takes a different tack by allowing young James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) to be smart and articulate — only without any financial means of achieving the goals he should be able to attain. After his parents hit a rough patch, James can no longer take his long-planned trip to Europe, or even enroll in the grad school he was hoping to attend. Thus, to make ends meet, he has taken a dead-end job at Adventureland, the cheesiest, most unbearable amusement park shithole in all of New York. This movie may take place in the summer of 1987, but it feels a lot like Now.

In between trying to make sure no one wins a big-ass panda on any of the park's games, James makes friends with the nerdy Joel (Martin Starr) and falls in love with the beautiful Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart). He also starts hanging with technician Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a seemingly okay guy who nevertheless inflates his ego by telling suspicious stories of jamming with Lou Reed. If James doesn't pick up on the suspect elements of the Lou Reed stories, that's his biggest failing, because it also means that he doesn't pick up on the vibes between Em and Connell. James may have gone through college, but he's still a virgin, and apparently still naive; in his rush to trust people and make friends, he's setting himself up for disappointment.

And what's perhaps most surprising about Adventureland is that it lets its characters fail, and then has the guts to explore the consequences. Where Superbad had its McLovin flights of fancy, Adventureland has a lovable kind of indie realism. It's beautifully shot, and Mottola has paid close attention to every small detail, from the evocative period soundtrack (I'll say no more than that it manages to fit in both "Rock Me Amadeus" and the Replacements) to the nuanced relationships. Indeed, if it hadn't been advertised as a big raunchy comedy, I would've assumed it was some scruffy little festival flick. And maybe that's why, despite being from the guy behind Superbad and starring the chick from Twilight, Adventureland barely made a dent at the box office in the same weekend that the vapid Fast & Furious broke records.

Sure, it has a subtler sense of humor than most teen flicks, but it's just as funny. I mean, when you consider its cast, there's no way it couldn't be. Bill Hader is hilarious in a scene-stealing turn as Adventureland's owner, with a big goofy mustache and a disarming politeness; Mottola is smart enough to realize that, given too much screen time, this character could easily have become a caricature, and so Hader gratefully waits on the sidelines for his big moments. Likewise, Kristen Wiig, as Hader's wife, is rarely seen, but when she is, she makes the most of it.

But the real heart of the movie lies in the chemistry between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. Eisenberg is like a less earnest, even more low-key Michael Cera, and he's impossible to dislike. Eisenberg is so winning that every time you see success within his grasp, right before it slips away, you feel every ounce of his pain. Specifically when it comes to his romance with Stewart. Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that Kristen Stewart was the star of the soul-deadening phenomenon that is Twilight, and both the character and her performance were as hollow as the entire film. Here, though, Stewart redeems herself with a coy sexiness and an irrepressible charm, particularly when acting opposite Ryan Reynolds. Both she and Reynolds are talented actors when given the right material, and if Adventureland proves anything, it's that they need to be given the right material more often.

But thankfully, Adventureland does prove more than that. It proves that, despite all of the samey comedies of late, it's still possible for there to be a breath of fresh air. More than any other Apatow or Apatow-esque movie, this one comes closest to replicating the feel of the short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, this movement's genesis and still its brightest hour. It's nearly as funny, insightful, and painfully honest as any episode of that show, which is about as strong a recommendation as I can give. When this starts playing on HBO, you're going to kick yourself for not having seen it sooner.

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About Arlo J. Wiley