"Adventureland" a poignant coming-of-age story

by Eric Melin on April 2, 2009

in Print Reviews

Click here for my Sundance interview with director Greg Mottola.

First things first: Although “Adventureland” is written and directed by Greg Mottola—who directed “Superbad”—it is not the same kind of over-the-top comedy as that movie (which was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg). If you go in expecting “Superbad II,” like most people this weekend will thanks to the film’s marketing campaign, it may take a while to adjust to the movie’s pacing and subtle characterizations. But don’t worry—“Adventureland” is a terrific film all by itself.

adventureland stewart eisenbergThere is one comparative line to draw here, however. Mottola’s semi-autobiographical movie feels like what might have happened the year that the “Freaks and Geeks” came home from college. Mottola directed six episodes of Judd Apatow’s TV show “Undeclared,” a college-aged follow-up to the now-classic-but-canceled “Freaks and Geeks.” Like Apatow, he has an uncanny ability to find the natural rhythm of uncomfortable exchanges between emotionally unsure people.

Those moments are at the heart of this touching and seemingly effortless film, which finds James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) spending the summer after college graduation at his parents’ house in a Pittsburgh suburb. “Adventureland” explores the last gasp of James’ old life and the transition to adulthood. (It’s fitting that The Replacements’ ode to aimlessness, “Bastards of Young,” opens the movie.) He’s desperate to grow up, but his progress is stopped in time when he’s forced to work a shitty job at a rundown amusement park.

The year is 1987, presumably because Mottola’s own experiences also coincide with this time period, but the setting also gives the film a simultaneously innocent and nostalgic vibe. The theme park becomes the meeting place for all James’ friends, including romantic interest Em (Kristen Stewart)—also home from college—who has a similar attitude towards the summer job and has lived through her own recent personal tragedy.

adventureland 2009 hader wiig starrEverybody who works at Adventureland is stuck in neutral, from the socially awkward and increasingly bitter Russian literature student Joel (Martin Starr), to Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the married maintenance guy who regularly cheats on his wife. There’s also Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the well-endowed trendy girl that all the guys fantasize about, and the married couple (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) that run the park from a trailer with a quiet, forced pride.

The hierarchies of high school are always in play. Lisa P. is at the top of the heap, one of the lucky ride operators, while James is pegged as more of a “games guy.” Connell is the older cool guy, having supposedly once “jammed with Lou Reed.” He’s one part Matthew McConaughey from “Dazed and Confused,” while also trying to set himself above the younger employees by referring to them as “kids.” Of course, James looks up to Connell. Reynolds is perfectly cast, playing a sad, older version of some of his past roles. If “Van Wilder” is still around in his early thirties, he’s probably banging high school chicks in his Mom’s basement.

Mottola’s direction is assured and impressively naturalistic for a teen-oriented comedy. He cuts through the cliches and expresses the longing that most movies of this ilk couldn’t find with a compass. He also has a way with his actors, getting subtle performances out of all of them (even the usually ‘bigger’ talents of Saturday Night Live‘s Wiig and Hader). Eisenberg (who also starred as an introspective young talker in “The Squid and the Whale”) brings a Woody Allen-type neurotic touch to James, who’s goal of saving his virginity for the right girl isn’t so much a conscious choice as it is an extension of his idealism. Em, on the other hand, is way beyond that, redirecting all her confusion and self-pity from her crappy homelife into a hollow secret relationship.

adventureland ryan reynoldsYou can see the conflict in their romance coming a mile away, but that’s not a criticism at all. In a more formulaic movie, that inevitable “blow-up” moment can leave you feeling cheated if the film has done nothing to foreshadow the characters’ actions. In “Adventureland,” you empathize with Jesse and Em even when they make poor choices. It’s a sign of how much they mean to each other that they can’t quite communicate it.

This brings up another great element of Mottola’s script: There are no “bad guys.” There are just three-dimensional people who sometimes do stupid things. This goes for Jesse and Em as much as it does for the characters that draw them apart (who, in turn, also have their sympathetic moments). You’d think he’d have learned more about women in college, but when he’s with Em, James immediately starts talking about how his heart was broken recently in a knee-jerk play for sympathy or maybe a misguided attempt at showing maturity. He’s also kind of a pompous egghead who feels like he has to prattle on about Shakespeare in order to impress. It’s impossible, though, to hate him or anybody else in “Adventureland.”

Although the dialogue is right on for the time period and very funny (As much fun as it was, that’s a kind of realism that can’t be said about “Juno.”), Mottola is also quite adept at letting a lack of dialogue speak loudly as well. In one telling scene, Em gives James a ride home and pops in a cassette. Without saying a word, the two glance at each other, the windows, the stereo, and the floor. The scene is certainly about their mutual attraction and curiosity, but it’s also about status. What’s unspoken is that Em is feeling out James’ musical tastes. As they both try to pretend nothing is going on, James makes his move, reaching for the volume knob to turn it up. A connection is made. (The song is Husker Du’s “Don’t Want to Know if You’re Lonely” and is one of many great tunes on the soundtrack.)

adventureland stewart eisenbergMusic plays a big part of “Adventureland.” A key moment of self-confidence and realization for James comes from seeing someone he looked up to getting a song title wrong. A little detail like that calls the person out as a fraud. And while awful 80s one-hit-wonders like “Rock Me Amadeus” play ad nauseum at the park, Mottola doesn’t dress everybody in the movie with outlandish 1980s clothes and use the setting as a crutch for cheap jokes. He’s more interested in getting it right. The movie has its moments of fun with the 80s, but it doesn’t dwell on them.

“Adventureland” captures perfectly that feeling of weightlessness just before impending adulthood. At once a personal and generational film, it also carries a poetic kind of melancholy that’s unique to movies of its kind, save for maybe “Say Anything” or “Dazed and Confused.”

This point loomed heavy in my mind after a second viewing of the movie: When somebody throws up in “Adventureland” (In a movie populated by rollercoasters and drinking, that’s kind of a given), it’s not presented as a big gross-out laugh like it would be in a more obvious comedy. Instead, it’s just something that happens. People throw up. And, like the messiness of life—someone is going to have to clean it up.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Danica April 2, 2009 at 10:16 pm

Great fucking movie, soundtrack, acting, directing and most of all review. Well played sir!

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2 Danica April 2, 2009 at 10:16 pm

Great fucking movie, soundtrack, acting, directing and most of all review. Well played sir!

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3 Alan Rapp April 3, 2009 at 9:35 am

Ditto.

It’s a very strong film that people should get out and see.

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4 Alan Rapp April 3, 2009 at 9:35 am

Ditto.

It’s a very strong film that people should get out and see.

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5 Trey April 3, 2009 at 2:24 pm

FOR THOSE THAT HAVEN’T SEEN THIS FILM YET–BEWARE SPOILERS LIE AHEAD!

I really couldn’t agree more. It was a very satisfying and complete film. The only thing that left me a little weird was Em and James getting together seamlessly at the end. I felt like the film had been so honest up until then that I would have liked a little more awkwardness. Maybe he’s sleeping on the floor next to her bed, or at least a Graduate “What the Fuck have we done?” end moment. This is a totally minor complaint, because I totally want them to get together at the end, but it felt less like truth and more like wish fulfillment.

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6 Trey April 3, 2009 at 2:24 pm

FOR THOSE THAT HAVEN’T SEEN THIS FILM YET–BEWARE SPOILERS LIE AHEAD!

I really couldn’t agree more. It was a very satisfying and complete film. The only thing that left me a little weird was Em and James getting together seamlessly at the end. I felt like the film had been so honest up until then that I would have liked a little more awkwardness. Maybe he’s sleeping on the floor next to her bed, or at least a Graduate “What the Fuck have we done?” end moment. This is a totally minor complaint, because I totally want them to get together at the end, but it felt less like truth and more like wish fulfillment.

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7 Eric Melin April 3, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Yeah, I know what you mean. But the only thing that could have healed the relationship was time so there wasn’t a lot Mottola could do. Thank GOD he didn’t do a montage!

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8 Eric Melin April 3, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Yeah, I know what you mean. But the only thing that could have healed the relationship was time so there wasn’t a lot Mottola could do. Thank GOD he didn’t do a montage!

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9 Kenny April 5, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Yeah, sometimes the most obvious conclusion for a film is the most simple. It’s always a debate to do the expected or not and Mottola did the right thing. In this case, it’s a question of how, more so than what. I really liked the film because of it’s awkward simplicity. I’d have to say it’s gauche but naturalistic interactions left me more than satisfied.

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10 Kenny April 5, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Yeah, sometimes the most obvious conclusion for a film is the most simple. It’s always a debate to do the expected or not and Mottola did the right thing. In this case, it’s a question of how, more so than what. I really liked the film because of it’s awkward simplicity. I’d have to say it’s gauche but naturalistic interactions left me more than satisfied.

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11 lintly April 7, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Loved it. Spent most of my time saying to myself, “Oh god, I knew someone like that” or “I did that”. Not an over the top 1980s movie, just a movie based in ’87.

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12 lintly April 7, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Loved it. Spent most of my time saying to myself, “Oh god, I knew someone like that” or “I did that”. Not an over the top 1980s movie, just a movie based in ’87.

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13 Hai April 7, 2009 at 11:38 pm

SPOILERS*

I was expecting a twist ending. Like a guy pops out of her bathroom in the end. Then James is like… fuck that bitch, i dont need you, im in New York! and walks away in the rain, like a boss.

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14 Hai April 7, 2009 at 11:38 pm

SPOILERS*

I was expecting a twist ending. Like a guy pops out of her bathroom in the end. Then James is like… fuck that bitch, i dont need you, im in New York! and walks away in the rain, like a boss.

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15 Eric Melin April 8, 2009 at 8:22 am

Hai- I found a great interview with Mottola here: http://www.avclub.com/articles/greg-mottola,26303/1/ He discusses what happens to Em and James after the movie ends. Close…

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16 Eric Melin April 8, 2009 at 8:22 am

Hai- I found a great interview with Mottola here: http://www.avclub.com/articles/greg-mottola,26303/1/ He discusses what happens to Em and James after the movie ends. Close…

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17 Hai April 8, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Good read, Eric, good interview.

Kinda sad that not many people saw the movie. Hopefully it will blossom by word of mouth or dvd perhaps.

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18 Hai April 8, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Good read, Eric, good interview.

Kinda sad that not many people saw the movie. Hopefully it will blossom by word of mouth or dvd perhaps.

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19 Nightman April 14, 2009 at 11:34 am

Good review!

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20 Nightman April 14, 2009 at 11:34 am

Good review!

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21 Nightman April 14, 2009 at 11:42 am

I have to say one of the only parts of the movie that left me wondering was the “Lisa P.” character.

She was just too unpredictable…like sometimes she was just completely dumb and shallow and at others she was sharp and more complex than that.

But maybe that was what the writer was going for…that unpredicability and occasional seemingly uncharacteristic actions that we all take that may get people scratching their heads.

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22 Nightman April 14, 2009 at 11:42 am

I have to say one of the only parts of the movie that left me wondering was the “Lisa P.” character.

She was just too unpredictable…like sometimes she was just completely dumb and shallow and at others she was sharp and more complex than that.

But maybe that was what the writer was going for…that unpredicability and occasional seemingly uncharacteristic actions that we all take that may get people scratching their heads.

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23 Eric Melin April 14, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Yeah, one of my favorite things about this movie were that no character is perfect, yet we feel sympathy for all of them. Lisa P. may have been your typical hot, dumb, popular girl, but underneath that facade, there’s always a real person. She shows a spark every now and then, but when it comes down to it, she’s a person who’s core remains the same. She spreads the gossip about Em at the end and has her own skewed version of how that was Em’s justice. It all rang true to the people I’ve known and I thought it was very subtly rendered.

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24 Eric Melin April 14, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Yeah, one of my favorite things about this movie were that no character is perfect, yet we feel sympathy for all of them. Lisa P. may have been your typical hot, dumb, popular girl, but underneath that facade, there’s always a real person. She shows a spark every now and then, but when it comes down to it, she’s a person who’s core remains the same. She spreads the gossip about Em at the end and has her own skewed version of how that was Em’s justice. It all rang true to the people I’ve known and I thought it was very subtly rendered.

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25 Alex July 13, 2009 at 1:31 am

This is a really excellent review of a film that some critics seemed to brush under the rug as “just another teen film.” In all honesty, it is right up there with stand-by’s like “Say Anything” or “Dazed and Confused.” Though I loved Superbad, it’s so much better than that film, and because the humor is a little bit more subdued in this movie, it makes it all the stronger. The performances are spot on–Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart infuse the relationship with true humanity that is seldom seen in most movies today. Also, I was surprised to read Peter Travers’ review where he said Ryan Reynolds was miscast as Connell. I think that Reynolds was perfectly cast and that he was playing an atypical role where he wasn’t a total asshole. His work in Van Wilder and Just Friends was pretty standard, but this shows him putting in ten times that effort.

Again, a really excellent review that touches upon everything important in this film, especially the amazingly diverse soundtrack. The scene you describe where the characters listen to Husker Du is one of the best in the movie–it captures teen awkwardness better than anything I can remember in recent years.

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26 Alex July 13, 2009 at 1:31 am

This is a really excellent review of a film that some critics seemed to brush under the rug as “just another teen film.” In all honesty, it is right up there with stand-by’s like “Say Anything” or “Dazed and Confused.” Though I loved Superbad, it’s so much better than that film, and because the humor is a little bit more subdued in this movie, it makes it all the stronger. The performances are spot on–Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart infuse the relationship with true humanity that is seldom seen in most movies today. Also, I was surprised to read Peter Travers’ review where he said Ryan Reynolds was miscast as Connell. I think that Reynolds was perfectly cast and that he was playing an atypical role where he wasn’t a total asshole. His work in Van Wilder and Just Friends was pretty standard, but this shows him putting in ten times that effort.

Again, a really excellent review that touches upon everything important in this film, especially the amazingly diverse soundtrack. The scene you describe where the characters listen to Husker Du is one of the best in the movie–it captures teen awkwardness better than anything I can remember in recent years.

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27 Eric Melin July 13, 2009 at 8:34 am

Thanks, Alex. I really hope this movie finds a wider audience on DVD. I think it will only grow in stature from here on out.

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28 Eric Melin July 13, 2009 at 8:34 am

Thanks, Alex. I really hope this movie finds a wider audience on DVD. I think it will only grow in stature from here on out.

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29 ewrann January 18, 2010 at 10:36 am

Finally saw this! Great movie. Totally agree with yer review.

My mind was blown when I heard Husker on the sdtrk and then saw Em with the T-shirt…what!?!?!?!

E

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30 ewrann January 18, 2010 at 10:36 am

Finally saw this! Great movie. Totally agree with yer review.

My mind was blown when I heard Husker on the sdtrk and then saw Em with the T-shirt…what!?!?!?!

E

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31 Eric Melin January 18, 2010 at 10:50 am

Ha! Thought you’d like that. We learned “Don’t Want to Know if You’re Lonely” and on Halloween, my band moonlighted as Adventureband and played the soundtrack. Here’s an excerpt:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8suLPmqdiuE

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32 Eric Melin January 18, 2010 at 10:50 am

Ha! Thought you’d like that. We learned “Don’t Want to Know if You’re Lonely” and on Halloween, my band moonlighted as Adventureband and played the soundtrack. Here’s an excerpt:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8suLPmqdiuE

Reply

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