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Adventureland is a Trip Back in Time

Maija Gustin | Sunday, April 5, 2009

“Adventureland,” written and directed by “Superbad’s” Greg Mottola, is the sort of coming-of-age, eccentric-boy-meets-cool-girl movie that people just seem to eat up these days. But don’t let Mottola’s “Superbad” credit mislead you – this definitely isn’t “Superbad.” Jesse Eisenberg plays the very real, very not-cool, Renaissance studies major that gets stuck working at a Pittsburgh amusement park over the summer in 1987. But Adventureland, the amusement park in question, turns out to not be so bad when he meets Em (“Twilight’s” Kristen Stewart). She plays the prototypical “I’m-cool-and-emotionally-unavailable” girl that he just can’t help but fall for. She’s also sleeping with Adventureland’s married handyman Connell (Ryan Reynolds). The movie has plenty of laughs, particularly from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, but it’s more of a nostalgic tale about finding yourself than a screwball comedy. The jokes, when they happen, are pretty laugh-worthy. “Adventureland” is rooted in an 80s soundtrack (count how many times you hear Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”), and has enough sly references to maybe make you wish you had grown up in the 80s. Maybe. But it is this seemingly authentic portrayal of growing up way back when that will appeal to the older generation not drawn in by Mottola’s tie to “Superbad.” The characters, though, drive the story more than any 80s rock soundtrack ever could. They seem real, authentic and as current as ever. They prove that young adolescence wasn’t really all that different 20 years ago. Eisenberg plays James in the same awkward vein as Michael Cera, but seems more genuine. He is adorable but never seems infallible. Unlike so many protagonists of these types of movies, he makes the same mistakes that real people actually do, and those mistakes aren’t just letting the perfect girl get away. Em, as said perfect girl, isn’t all that perfect herself. Stewart never seems like she’s acting. Her idiosyncrasies just make her more sincere as a character. She gives Em a heart and the rare glimpses of vulnerability in her otherwise invulnerable character that the audience really needs to see. But James’ and Em’s flaws fit perfectly together. Unfortunately, the audience knows it’s right before either of them does. Eisenberg and Stewart may be the heart of “Adventureland,” but the supporting cast fills the movie out into something more than just a corny romance. Hader and Wiig are perfect as the quirky park owners, and their comedic timing is always right. Martin Starr (“Knocked Up”) is Joel, another literature buff working at the park. His presence alone gives the movie some extra weight. Ryan Reynolds, while not a very likeable or important character, provides Em with her much-needed emotional vulnerability. Mottola, who also wrote “Adventureland,” gave his semi-autobiographical film a necessary taste of authenticity. It’s this authenticity that keeps the film from being a cliché. “Adventureland” looks fondly back on a time, 22 years ago, that many loved, some hated and plenty just never got to see. It’s reminiscent of “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused.” But while those opened up a new generation to their cultural predecessors, “Adventureland” seems less bent on showing the 80s and more interested in showing how the 80s weren’t really all that long ago, even though they sort of were. These kids are the same as now; trying to grow up too fast and thinking they know everything about life. “Adventureland” is close to nostalgia at its best. Where it fails in being a supremely moving film, it has a whole lot of heart. Mottola brings a fresh and fine-tuned eye to his movie and proves that he shouldn’t be pigeonholed as a go-to comedy guy.