With the passage of time comes a greater perspective on the past. How often has one suffered through high school or college, or meandered through a lazy summer of seeming immobility with their friends, only to gaze back upon it years later and wish, if only for a moment, that they could have those months or years back? "Adventureland," a semi-autobiographical slice-of-life from director Greg Mattola (2007's "Superbad
"), doesn't linger on this point, or even spell it out, but it makes it just the same. Gently comic rather than boisterously broad and profane like the trailers and television ads deceptively suggest, the film gets laughs instead from human behavior and witty observation (when "Satin Lives!" is found spray-painted on a wall, a character suggests the culprit must be a textile-worshipping cult). These moments of humor are just an aside, however, from its poignant depiction of being an adult on the verge of larger responsibilities, but still fleetingly young enough to act and party like a kid.
With his graduation from college, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has been promised a special gift from his parents (Jack Gilpin, Wendie Malick): the chance to backpack across Europe for the summer before continuing his education at New York's Columbia University in the fall. When his parents hit hard times and his father's alcoholism rises as his salary is downsized, these plans fly right out the window. Suddenly faced with no funds for his future, James has no choice but to get a job. The one he findsworking in the games field at downtrodden Pittsburgh amusement park Adventurelandisn't exactly his dream position, but he's more than happy to plug away at it day in and day out when he meets, and quickly becomes smitten, with alluring co-worker Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart).
Home for a few months from NYU but not on the best of terms with her father (Josh Pais) and his haughty new wife (Mary Birdsong), Em is a troubled and confused soul who also happens to be terribly smart and a whole lot of fun. As the summer presses forward, James and Em become good friends, and then maybe more. That she is also in the midst of an affair with unhappily married maintenance man Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds) is something she hates herself for, and something that James is destined to eventually discover, for better or for worse.
Oh, yeah. "Adventureland" is set in 1987, and James is still a virgin. When a lesser, more commercialized product might have made a big deal about these two details, writer-director Greg Mattola (harkening back to the winning, loose style of his debut picture, 1997's "The Daytrippers") makes sure that his film isn't defined by them. Sure, James hasn't had sex yet, but it is not like he is a pariah. Indeed, he might not be the most headstrong of guys, but he is also not a mumbling, awkward stereotype who can't get a proper sentence out while talking with the opposite sex. By contrast, Em has more experience behind her, and when she presses James on his sexual prowess and the truth comes out, she finds it rather endearing. "But," she adds, "could you not use the word 'intercourse' anymore?"
In regards to the decade in which the film is set, Mattola gives the '80s a respective tribute, but doesn't overdo it or make a mockery of the period. Thus, luscious ride controller Lisa P (Margarita Levieva") might style herself like a Madonna wannabe, and the gangly, pipe-smoking Joel (Martin Starr), who hangs with the same crowd as James and Em, might mention how he's saving up to put a compact disc player in his car, but these are treated more as a comment on the times than a "Wedding Singer"-style excuse for a gag. A lot of the credit not only should go to the assured screenplay, but to the development of an ensemble who talk, act and think like real people rather than predictable, tried-and-true cinematic types. Lisa P, for example, could have easily been a shallow, one-note creation, but she shows a genuine interest in James and steadfastly sticks to her own value system. Likewise, Mike Connell isn't viewed as James' snarky adversary, but as a flawed, slightly older guy who hasn't yet found what he's looking for out of life.
The soundtrack, filled with a near-constant stream of '80s musicboth the hits and lesser-known cuts get their moment in the spotlightis extensive and well-chosen. The songs are a valuable attribute, helping to layer scenes and bring out the emotion and immediacy of what is happening onscreen. Some favorites: Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes," underscoring the exact moment James falls in love with Em; Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over," played during the park's Fourth of July fireworks display; The Cure's "Just Like Heaven," wherein an experiment with pot cookies leads to a swirling ride on the bumper cars; and The Replacement's "Unsatisfied," beautifully introducing James, his future still in the air, to a dark, rainy, magical New York City.
Sharing certain personality traits reminiscent of Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg (2005's "The Squid and the Whale
") plays the hero of the piece, James, as safe and unthreatening, but with just the right complexity and appeal to understand why Em, and later Lisa P, would like him. As object of affection and much more, Kristen Stewart (2008's "Twilight
") is stunningly intuitive in her reading of Em, a young lady with more to worry about and grapple with than which boys like her. Stewart is a delight to watch throughout, but her tendency to rub her hands through her hair is one affectation that could be done without as she moves forward in her promising career. Ryan Reynolds (2008's "Definitely, Maybe
") is reeled back as Mike Connell, and his understated performance pays off, while Margarita Levieva (2007's "The Invisible
") is a force of bubbly energy as Lisa P. Getting lost in the background too often as married amusement park owners Bobby and Paulette, Bill Hader (2008's "Tropic Thunder
") and Kristen Wiig (2007's "The Brothers Solomon
") never rise beyond sketches. It is not that they don't fit in writer-director Greg Mattola's tapestry, but that he doesn't seem sure of what to do with them.
As a universal tale of the post-adolescent experience and that last gasp of freedom before the lurking pressures of societal expectation rear their ugly heads, "Adventureland" is knowledgeable, identifiable, and wise, virtually every bone in its body an honest one. If there are more subplots than the script can juggle and little actual concrete storyJames' father's alcohol problem is brought up and never dealt withit is the realistic vibrancy of the filmmaking and the underlying sense of nostalgia for years gone by that stirs the viewer most achingly. As James, Em, Joel, Lisa P and the rest of characters endure their jobs by day and party it up by night, making friendships frequently with a sell-by date, falling in love, searching their souls, testing the waters, and getting their hearts broken, they stand on the precipice of everything that is to come, and all the things they have known from childhood that will soon no longer be. Warts and all, these are the times of their lives, and they don't even know it. Going through it, do any of us?