If you're like me, you went to see 2007's Superbad hoping for more of the wit and charm of Knocked Up — a movie powered by much of the same talent and released just two months earlier. And, if you're like me, you were magnificently disappointed in how Superbad focused on raunch, distilled the boys-will-be-boys factor into a misogynistic vinegar, and dispensed with charisma altogether.
Now comes Adventureland from Superbad director Greg Mottola. In Adventureland, Mottola has — surprisingly — made a fantastic movie despite the circumstantial odds against it. It's like penance for his past sins.
Adventureland is set primarily at an amusement park in Pittsburgh (think Libertyland except less lame). It's the mid to late 1980s (literalizing the '80s nostalgia running rampant in Superbad) as recent college graduate James (Jesse Eisenberg) gets a summer job there running rigged games.
James is trying to save money for grad school in New York City after his cash-strapped parents bail out of funding his way at the last minute. It's an introduction to the real world for the Renaissance-studies degree holder. Eisenberg nails it as the down-in-the-mouth kid tongue-tied when confronted by hope. Who doesn't love a guy like that?
At the park, James meets a group of returning seasonal employees, including Joel, the nerd who teaches him the ropes (Martin Starr); the hottie tease, Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva); the repairman who moonlights as a rocker, unable to give up the dreams of his youth (Ryan Reynolds); and, most important of all, Em, the cute girl who actually talks to him (Kristen Stewart).
Adventureland is being marketed as another bawdy, wild comedy in the vein of Superbad, but don't be fooled. It's not even all that funny. Sure, there are a couple of scenes with some kind of gross-out humor, and, like Superbad, the heroes are virgins. But in Adventureland that decision is a choice and not the point, and any surface ribaldry is window dressing for what's really going on in this sweet, teen romantic drama.
God is in the details: While Superbad's theme song was Van Halen's sleazy "Panama" (admittedly a favorite of mine), Adventureland opts for the melancholy of the Replacements' "Unsatisfied." The filmmakers fill out the soundtrack with heartfelt cuts from Big Star, Hüsker Dü, Lou Reed, and other '80s college radio faves.
The camera occasionally slips into impressionistic blurs of carnival lights and finds pretty nighttime glimpses of Pittsburgh out of car windows. Along with an interconnected but episodic plot, this helps define Adventureland as a reminiscence on heady, life-defining days of future present, looked back upon by a participant who can never forget. The film is about what it felt like to experience those times rather than being a passport to the anything-can-happen spontaneity of life lived in the moment.
It marks a sea change for Mottola. He cut his teeth on the TV show Undeclared, but Adventureland is more in the mold of its great precursor, Freaks and Geeks. It's clearly personal, but it doesn't settle for nostalgic revelry, instead paying homage to the universal truths of coming-of-age.
Opening Friday, April 3rd