There is perhaps no lazier form of criticism than direct comparison. When you say that something is like something else of the same sort (ie, movies/TV shows to movies/TV shows, bands to bands, paintings to paintings), you’re taking the cheap, easy way out. Instead of explaining what the thing is, you’re just using shorthand. Which is why I feel bad that the best way I can describe Adventureland to you is to compare it to the classic television show Freaks and Geeks.
It’s not just Martin Starr that they have in common. Greg Mottola’s film, about a very smart kid stuck working the summer in a very dumb job, is tonally the closest thing to F&G I have seen since that show went off the air. Adventureland is loving towards its characters but also brutally honest about them. It’s nostalgic for a specific time period and a time of life, but not to the point of denying all the bad stuff that came along with it. And the movie has no bad guys; while it would have been easy for Mottola to turn this into a standard slobs vs snobs movie he instead finds the humanity inside every one of his characters, understanding that even the shallowest people have inner lives and pain.
Now I’ve gone and made Adventureland sound mawkish; it’s not. It’s very funny, but never at the expense of characters. Another trait shared with F&G: Adventureland isn’t afraid to sidestep a comedy moment for a character moment. That’s led some folks – surely confused by the Superbad-referencing ad campaign – to complain that the movie isn’t that funny, but they’re wrong. It’s just exactly funny enough. It’s perfectly funny.
Jesse Eisenberg is James, a smart English major who is all set to go to Columbia in the fall. But at the last minute his parents give him bad news: money is tight and they can’t afford to subsidize him in New York. Instead of going to Europe, James has to spend the summer in a Pittsburgh suburb, slaving away at a shitty job at the local theme park in order to afford his New York City rent. It’s a classic set up that you don’t see too often in movies; we’ve seen plenty of smart kids slumming or slacking at jobs that are beneath them, but James isn’t at Adventureland because he refuses to apply himself. It’s almost the opposite in that he’s stuck at Adventureland trying to achieve his goals in the only way available to him. It’s just one of the many ways that Mottola takes familiar concepts and makes them feel fresh.
At Adventureland James befriends Joel (Martin Starr), a similarly smart kid whose lower class background has him stuck in theme park purgatory. And James immediately falls for Em (Kristen Stewart), the sardonic girl who makes change at the arcade. But while things start out looking up for the two of them, there’s a third party who complicates everything – Ryan Reynolds as the older park handyman who moonlights in a rock band and who may have once jammed with none other than Lou Reed.
I love that most of these characters aren’t slackers or dimwits. I love that James is a nerd, but not the kind of nerd who is completely socially awkward and unable to get laid; while he’s a virgin it’s not for lack of opportunity. Too many movies create dweeby leads who seem so crippled that once you’re done laughing at them you start to feel depressed. Mottola gets that just because you’re kind of a geek doesn’t mean you’re unable to get a kiss. Again, it’s a fresh take on a familiar concept. It’s amazing what a little emotional veracity can do to the most cliched characters and settings.
One of the things that really made me fall in love with Adventureland is how loosely it’s structured. While there’s a big, overarching story about James and Em, Mottola is happy to take little side trips with the characters, and each side trip is an opportunity to not only build the main characters but to give the secondary characters lives of their own. When James goes on a date with the park hottie Lisa P* it’s an opportunity for a little bit of comedy – this lit nerd and this dance queen have little in common, it seems – but also an opportunity to sweetly define James a little more and to give Lisa P, who might otherwise have been good for some gags, a touch of real life. I’ve known a hundred Lisa Ps in my life, but I never felt like I understood them until I saw Adventureland.
In fact, the more I think back on Adventureland the more I realize it’s the secondary characters who made me fall in love with the movie. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are hilarious as the demented couple who run the park (Hader has a scene with a baseball bat and an unruly customer that will be legendary), while Martin Starr has a chance to show that he has a lot more than Bill Haverchuck in him, creating a truly melancholy character. Even Matt Bush as Tommy Frigo – James’ idiotic, crotch-punching friend who would have been the annoying sidekick if Adventureland was an actual 80s movie as opposed to being set in the 80s – ends up being an immensely likable, almost indelible presence with just a few short scenes.
If there’s one character I didn’t quite get it was Em, basically because I don’t quite get Kristen Stewart. While she seems very intelligent on screen she also has a thinness of presence, like she’s about to blow away out of the scene. There’s one moment in the movie, where Em is confronting a girl who has been unthinkingly anti-Semitic, where Stewart feels alive, but otherwise I keep feeling like she needs more iron in her blood, or maybe just more sleep.
The entire film rests on the shoulders of Eisenberg, and I think he manages marvelously. There’s a throughline between his character in The Squid and the Whale (maybe Walt’s parents were more fucked up, but James’ parents certainly give them a run for the money in some areas) and Adventureland; Eisenberg has some kind of upper middle class white boy intellectual appeal, never getting to the nebbishy side of things but also never becoming an annoying yuppie. One of the main thematic elements that I loved in Adventureland is how James goes from taking his future for granted to figuring out that he has to build it all on his own and Eisenberg handles that arc with grace and affability. You never feel like James is stuck up or full of himself, traits that could have been all too easy to layer in. I’m not sure that Eisenberg is leading man quality for most movies, but a film like Adventureland suits his strengths perfectly.
Maybe the shocker of Adventureland is Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds seems like an actor set on making me forget I like him; for every interesting role he takes he seems to sign on for six other forgettable romcoms. But here he’s allowed to get comfortable in a character who should be the villain but who is completely sympathetic, and more than a little sad. Washed up before 30, trapped in a marriage he hates a job that’s lame, stuck in a bar band that will never go anywhere, he’s just grabbing for the little things that make him feel alive. In another movie he would have been the villain, and even in a more complex movie he would have been unveiled as a pathetic loser at the end. Here he’s treated with empathy and kindness, even as the movie never makes any bones about who he is or where he’s headed.
After seeing Adventureland I understand what it was that made Superbad work so well: it was the tension between Mottola’s heart and the vulgarity of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script. There’s vulgarity in Adventureland – the movie could be loosely categorized as a teen sex comedy, if you were so inclined (I’m not) – but there’s a lot more heart. What’s amazing is that every single element in this film could be given to another director and they would come up with something that would likely be funny and maybe even endearing but utterly standard and trite. It feels like Mottola wouldn’t know how to make a movie like that if he tried; every frame of the film is dripping not just with sincerity but honesty. It’s not just that Mottola might have worked a job like this when he was 18, it’s that he remembers exactly what it was like to be 18 and smart and working a job like this, and then to be able to funnel that through his adult wisdom and experience. It makes Adventureland a movie that will speak completely to teens and people who used to be teens. And while it’s set in the 80s (mostly, I’m assuming, to take advantage of an amazing soundtrack), every aspect of the story is timeless.
Adventureland is a wonderful movie. It’s sweet and funny and real, and definitely one of the best coming of age movies I’ve seen in years, if not ever.