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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review: Adventureland (2009)

* * *

Director: Greg Mottola
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds

Greg Mottola's Adventureland is, in many ways, your typical teen comedy/drama, except that its characters aren't teenagers but are instead in that strange, extended adolescence period of your early 20s where you're technically an adult but you haven't yet become financially independent and your responsibilities are still extremely limited. It isn't necessarily an instant classic of its genre, but I suspect that it's the kind of film you can pick up over and again as the years pass and still enjoy.

Adventureland opens in the summer of 1987, with recent college grad James (Jesse Eisenberg) learning that his planned graduation trip to Europe will have to be cancelled because his parents are no longer in a financial position to pay for it. Now tasked with supporting himself, James begins looking for work but discovers that four years of college have only qualified him to work at the eponymous theme park. The park's managers (Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig) hire him to work in games, though he keeps insisting that he'd rather work in rides, and he quickly establishes friendships with his co-workers, Joel (Martin Starr), Em (Kristin Stewart), and Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a musician who makes ends meet by doing maintenance at the park.

As the summer progresses James' relationship with Em begins to transition from friendship to romance, but there are complications. First, and unbeknownst to James, Em has been having an affair with Connell who, incidentally, has also been acting as a confidante to James. Second, when James gets the chance to go out with Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the girl that everyone wants, he takes it and tries to keep it secret from Em. The two clandestine relationships come out eventually, of course, and just in time for the summer to come to a close and for James and Em to go their separate ways - but, then again, perhaps not.

Like Mottola's previous film, Superbad, Adventureland has plot that is superficially very conventional. Like that previous film, however, it takes the bare bones of an archetypal coming of age story and fleshes it out with well-drawn characters whose relationships are developed enough that they feel authentic. Although it is ultimately a bit slight thematically, it's a film populated by characters that are worth spending time with, whose conflicts are rooted in reality and who generally seem like actual "people" - which is not something you can say about every film and certainly not something you can say about many teen oriented films.

Anchoring the piece with his typical understated slow burn style is Eisenberg who, despite his character's tendency towards, well, whining, never becomes unbearably annoying. This is due in equal parts to Eisenberg's skill as an actor (to see him as his "whiny" best, I highly recommend The Squid and the Whale) and to the fact that the film doesn't really indulge the perception that James has of himself at the beginning. What the film knows is that James is a somewhat spoiled kid who needs to encounter an actual problem to push himself into that next phase of adulthood - and it allows James to learn that lesson and grow as a person from it. Adventureland is a film about people who aren't quite grown up, but it offers a mature and often thoughtful look at them and comes packaged in a soundly made and entertaining film.


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