A film review by Craig J. Koban

ADVENTURELAND jjj
½ 

2009, R, 107 mins.

James Brennan: Jesse Eisenberg / Em: Kristen Stewart / Connell: Ryan Reynolds / Frigo: Matt Bush / Lisa P.:  Margarita Levieva / Bobby:  Bill Hader / Paulette: Kristen Wiig / Joel: Martin Starr

Written and directed by Greg Mottola.

More often than not, I absolutely loathe it when the studios falsely advertise their respective films: there is sometimes nothing worse that going to see a film that is not remotely as advertised.   

However, ADVENTURELAND is one of those categorically rare exceptions to this rule.  Seeing the ads for it, it's clear that Miramax has lazily sold it as a raunchy, potty mouthed, and crass teen sex comedy in the SUPERBAD mould (largely because Greg Mottola, SUPERBAD’s director, serves duties as both writer and director of ADVENTURELAND).  

To be sure, ADVENTURELAND is – by the most basic and limiting definitions – a young adult sex/coming of age comedy that is lewd, crude, and sometimes ill-mannered, but the important distinction here is that it overcomes the lame and routine clichés that dominate this genre by becoming surprisingly emotional and utterly engaging on a character level.  The people that populate the film are not cardboard cut-outs that are served up on a chopping block for the purpose of furthering the film’s scatological agenda; rather, ADVENTURELAND straddles two very difficult dramatic stratospheres – humor and heartfelt honesty – to forge one of the more endearing and touching coming of age comedies I’ve seen in a long while. 

My largest complaint about comedies in general is that they place a higher prominence on gross-out gags and would-be hilarious shenanigans first and characters, dialogue, and story a dead last.  Yes, ADVENTURELAND has its fair share of debauchery and f-bomb riddled vulgarity - not to mention that it does not shy away from graphic dialogue scenes about s-e-x – but the greatness of the film is how Mottola does not engage in wall-to-way offensiveness throughout.  The film is curiously under cranked in terms of its comic tone and pacing and it instead thanklessly hones in its focus on well drawn out and textured characters that emerge as compellingly human and vulnerable.  ADVENTURELAND finds a poignancy and respectable level of empathy in its young twenty-something characters that too many similar genre efforts fall short of.  What’s most rewarding here is that Mottola respects the audience’s intelligence: he wants us to laugh, to be sure, but he also wants to find insight into his characters foibles as well, and it’s the film’s effective blending of touching sentimentality (without being sanctimoniously phony and ham-infested) with sharp witted humor (without being a slave to all-out crudeness) that makes it such a sure-fire and ambitious triumph. 

Even better is the fact that this is a period comedy (set in late-80’s Regan-era Pennsylvania) which mercifully never uses its period detail as a primary source of uninspired laughs and guffaws (see THE WEDDING SINGER).  A lesser filmmaker would have obsessively filled the screen with wall-to-wall 1980’s décor to both immerse viewers and to take cheap pot pop cultural shots at the decade.  What’s so wonderfully here is how Mottola keeps the aesthetic look of ADVENTURELAND in check throughout, never once allowing his camera to needlessly linger on its neon-colored decade.  With his less is more approach, Mottola instead allows us to focus more on the individual characters themselves, almost to the point where the time period becomes an afterthought.  In the end, ADVENTURELAND hints at and modestly tugs at our nostalgic heartstrings.  Being a person that was approaching young adolescence during this time period, watching ADVENTURELAND serves up many collective memories I had of this time in my life without sacrificing any later investment in the story and personalities that populate it.  Achieving this type of a response is not as easy at it sounds. 

The film serves up yet another winning performance for Jesse Eisenberg, who was a wonderful presence in the family divorce drama, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE.  This time he is given leading man billing and here is more than equal to the task of playing a somewhat typical geeky and timid young adult with a level of discreet sophistication and intelligence.  It’s 1987 and James Brennan (Eisenberg) is a newly graduated college student with a degree in Renaissance studies.  He is really looking forward to fantastic summer vacation back packing all throughout Europe when social disaster strikes.  His parents reveal to him during a fateful post-grad dinner that they have been forced to cut down expenses due to the father’s demotion at his job.  Since money is tight, the parents can no longer cover James’ long awaited European odyssey, not to mention that his ambition to go to New York for an Ivy League post-graduate Master’s degree is put on immediate hold.   

The only short-term solution is for James to get a summer job, which he does at the local Adventureland Amusement Park, which is run by a kooky and offbeat married couple, Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, ferociously hilarious in their few scenes on screen together).  The park itself is hardly in the glossy and shiny Disneyland mode: this is a second-hand, grungy looking attraction where all of the prizes look like hand-me-downs from a Dollar Store and the individual games themselves of so unscrupulously rigged that it’s a shock that litigation against the park never happens.  James thinks that he has a great potential heading up the rides at the park, but the owners insist on placing him at the various game venues, which requires him to put on a fresh and positive attitude in order to persuade people with less sense than him to risk their money in order to beat games that are essentially unbeatable.  Biggest rule of the park: don’t let anyone win a giant assed stuffed panda.  That’s ground for immediate dismissal. 

Okay…so this is an utterly soul-crushing job for the over-educated and intelligent James, but he makes the most of his painfully monotonous time there by hooking up with a new group of friends and confidants.  The young people he meets at first seem like they have been ripped out of the John Hughes playbook, but despite their outward stereotypical facades, they all well fleshed out and interesting personas.  We meet the uber nerd Joel (Martin Starr), who becomes a perfectly matched companion to James; the park’s young sex pot, Lisa P (Margarita Levieva, who has an astonishing resemblance to Jessica Alba); the older park maintenance worker, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who is definitely a notorious flirt despite his marriage; and finally Em (Kristen Stewart), who has a nice combination of girl-next-door attractiveness, acerbic wit, and low key coolness.   She’s the kind of spunky gal that appears smart, articulate, and more mature and forthright than the other girls of her age, which is what James becomes instantly attracted to (in her he sees someone that is not only beautiful, but perhaps an intellectual match for him as well).  Surprisingly, James manages to become quite the popular attraction himself at the park (maybe because of his endless supply of pot), but he also manages to get close to Em and realizes that – whoa, radical! – he loves this girl…whereas Em may or may not love him back, which may have something to do with an adulterous fling she has maintained with that hunky maintenance man for quite some time. 

One thing that ADVENTURELAND does with such precision and assuredness is how it defies total audience expectations.  The film could have paraded around from one methodically predictable teen-rom-com beat to the next, but Mottola respects his characters too much for that sort of nonsense.  He does this primarily by not pigeonholing his characters into broad and superficial archetypes.  The film finds uncanny insight into its characters and develops the underlining Em/James love story into something that is not nearly as neat, tidy, and uncomplicated as we would come to expect.  The film has the obligatory meet cutes, first dates, etc., but its story never compromises by making their courtship void of emotional roadblocks and setbacks.  What’s refreshing here is that James, the geeky, girl shy, and apprehensive person, is not lazily developed as a down-on-his luck underdog figure.  He develops many close friends, manages to hit it off with the girl of his dreams rather easily, and has a sot of calm-spoken confidence and smartness to him, which makes him likeable.  Even look at how James tries to play himself off in front of women: it’s not a cringe-worthy embarrassment, nor does Eisenberg overplay it to the point of ridicule.  Throughout the film James feels like a flesh and blood creation that is both self-confident and painfully insecure at the same time.  His character dynamic makes emotionally investing in the film that much more easy. 

Em is also a character that doesn’t fit into easily definable pattern.  Interestingly, she’s neither portrayed as a cast iron bitch nor as a perfectly well rounded and affable young lady either.  The way she initially befriends the hapless James is compassionate enough, but the script never plays things safe with her: after all, she is an equal partner in an adulterous affair, which indirectly leads her to leading on James of the false possibility of a long term relationship, not to mention that she treats the adult figures in her life like garbage (like her step mother and biological father).  One scene in particular shows Em’s nasty and selfish ruthlessness, as she berates her step mom in ways that are a bit more hostile than they should have been.  Her budding romance with James does not go from one preordained plop point to the next: the fact that you never have a real grasp on where it’s headed is one of ADVENTURELAND’s strong suits. 

The performances are all uniformly excellent: Eisenberg, as stated, may not be everyone’s ideal of a conventional leading man for this type of comedy, but it is his off-kilter, self-effacing comic delivery that makes him stand apart, not to mention that he also finds a sobering understanding of his character’s inherent fragility.  Kristen Stewart, who has gained the most notoriety for being in the really lame TWILIGHT, certainly shows herself here as a raw and invigorating talent that deserves much better than a soulless and sterile teenage vampire romance with little to no dramatic bite.  Her soulful and melancholic performance as Em is one of 2009’s most complex and involving portraits.  I also liked Martin Starr as James’s skittish, but sometimes emotional shy, best friend that provides some of the film’s most honest laughs: he’s a fervent academic that frequently comments on the hellish experience of working at a job that is a large intellectual step down for guys like him and James.  

Perhaps the most surprising supporting performance some from Ryan Reynolds, who plays his faithless, marital double-crossing maintenance man with considerably more depth and understanding that you may think.   Perhaps the freshest aspect of ADVENTURELAND is that Mottola does not narrow-mindedly paint Connell as an unsympathetic, one-note A-hole that goes out of his way to deceive his wife and manipulate James’s emotional delicateness.  Yes, the film does not absolve him as a traitorous jerk for cheating on his wife, but he is framed more as a man plagued with his own doubts and insecurities.  Moreover, he is – outside of his indefensible infidelity – a fairly nice, approachable, and relatable guy.  Interestingly enough, he does not fiendishly go out of his way to destroy any chance James has with Em, nor does he consider him a social enemy deserving of his overt hatred and jealousy.  Just look at one late, but key scene, where James and Connell finally confront one another after they each discover their part in Em’s romantic life.  It never once falls victim to clichés nor does it ring as false, which ultimately shows the breadth of reverence and understanding that Mottola has for his creations.    Almost all other brain-dead and routine rom-coms on autopilot would have made Connell the easy-target villain, but ADVENTURELAND is delectably more at home with dealing with the troublesome grey areas of its characters. 

ADVENTURELAND is not faultless; much like my long-standing criticisms of many of the better dramedies of the John Hughes canon, Mottola cannot resist the temptation here to make just about all of the adult parental figures into unsympathetic and uncaring stooges (the portrayal of Em’s parents are essentially broad caricatures), not to mention that Hader and Wiig’s park owners – despite having a robust comic chemistry with one another and garnering some of the film’s most knee-slapping laughs – almost seem like they have wandered off of another film set and stumbled on to this one.  However, those are minor quibbles, because ADVENTURELAND more than makes up for its small faults by being an involving coming-of-age comedy that is bittersweet, touching, perceptive, and charming through and through.  Considering the status quo for similar teen oriented comedic films as of late, Mottola shows a deep and penetrating respect for his characters and ADVENTURELAND is able to take a sharp detour away from a world with clear cut, black and white ideals and instead makes his film more richly realized.  The film is played for laughs, to be sure, but it has moments of pathos and humility, which is something that even I was not expecting.  Instead of getting a McLovin sized celebration of debauchery and excess, ADVENTURELAND emerges as a quieter, smarter, and more serenely told chronicle of summer love.  It’s one of 2009’s most unexpectedly moving and fulfilling films.

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