How the hell did this movie get past me when it was in theaters? Writer/director Greg Mottola, who directed (but didn’t write) Superbad, has delivered a funny poignant coming-of-age film that feels like a cross between Cameron Crowe and John Hughes. And somehow I was almost completely oblivious to this fact.
No matter, though. I’m thrilled to have discovered it on DVD, where I imagine I’ll return to it more than once in years to come.
Adventureland follows James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent college grad whose plans to tour Europe over the summer are derailed by financial complications. Instead he finds himself looking for a job to help pay his Fall tuition at the Columbia School of Journalism.
A neurotic intellectual in the young Woody Allen mold, James finds himself turned down for even the most menial jobs. “I majored in comparative literature and Renaissance studies,” he says. “Unless someone needs a fresco restored, I’m screwed.”
He finally lands a job at the titular amusement park as a “Games guy,” meaning he runs those impossible carny games and cleans up after vomiting youngsters. But it’s there that he meets Em (Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart), who quickly captures his heart, and a host of other memorable characters. It’s the sort of simple set-up that can result in a lousy movie or a great one. Adventureland is a great one.
Mottola based the script on his own experiences working as a carny one summer, and that authenticity bleeds through every frame. The film is filled not with movie jokes but laughs that develop organically from characters and situations. The halting stabs at romance are painfully real. The characters are archetypes — the troubled pretty girl, the nerdy friend, the sexpot, the playboy — but every one has depth and nuance.
Ryan Reynolds, playing a married maintenance man who can’t keep his hands off the girls he works with, turns what could be a villain’s role into something special, and more than a little bit sad. Stewart, blandly likable in Twilight, is powerful and alluring here, playing a young woman looking for ways to blame herself for everything wrong in her life. And Eisenberg, who reminds me of a more confident Michael Cera, is fabulous as the warm-hearted James, a 22-year-old virgin whose sweetness draws women like flies to honey.
James is a pragmatic romantic. At the beginning of the film, he has calculated the cost of his spontaneous European trip down to the penny, adjusting the total cost because some of the youth hostels had raised their rates. In one of my favorite exchanges, he tells Em that he’s attending Columbia’s journalism school because he wants to be a travel writer… but not the regular sort of travel writer. He wants to be like Charles Dickens, who wrote travel books about the places nobody usually visits, like prisons and asylums. Em responds “Why do you have to go to grad school for that?”
The film is set in 1988, but it doesn’t abuse that period piece status. The 80s touches are there in the background — in the clothes and the hairstyles and especially the music. The film’s soundtrack, boasting more than 40 80s classics, is a character in its own right. I wish I’d seen this film before doing my 80s music countdown. But this isn’t a “soundtrack movie”… those songs play at the amusement park and on car radios and home stereo systems. They are a part of the characters’ lives the way music is a part of all of our lives. After all, sitting with your girl under a fireworks display while Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over‘ plays is a pretty cinematic moment, whether it’s in a movie or not.
I could go on all day about this movie… I think I already have. It’s a special film that benefited from the extra boost of being completely unexpected. When I pop in a DVD hoping for a few laughs and get one of my favorite movies of an already excellent year, that’s cause for celebration.