Those expecting another hormonally charged, cheerfully outlandish sex comedy from Superbad director Greg Mottola may be surprised to discover that Adventureland, despite a deliberately misleading ad campaign, is nothing of the sort. It is a far more grounded, even somber affair, populated by thoughtful, unaffected characters whose misadventures ring invariably true. It is also one of the year’s best films.
While its premise might seem ideally suited to broad, physical comedy – James (Jesse Eisenberg, the long-haired, gangly star of The Squid and the Whale) takes a summer job at a cash-strapped amusement park whose employees are restless college types and small-town lifers – Adventureland, set in the Pittsburgh area circa 1987, is most effective in its quieter moments.
Rather than rehashing the juvenile absurdities of Superbad, which began as a modestly charming high-school comedy until being hijacked by Seth Rogen and Bill Hader’s Keystone Cops, Mottola, who wrote Adventureland based on his own teenage experiences at a similar park on Long Island, makes light of the awkwardness of youth in a way that is refreshingly honest. He cares about these characters, and has a sharp ear for the way they communicate.
Joel (Martin Starr, of the dearly departed Freaks and Geeks), a mild-mannered, thickly bespectacled misfit whose social ineptitude is played for laughs, is also the park’s most astute observer, looking on as his friends blunder their way through a season of tentative romances. The most poignant of these involves James and Em (Kristen Stewart), who seem drawn to one another from the moment they meet.
Complications arise. James is bright but immature, and too easily seduced when the park’s resident vixen (Margarita Levieva) proposes a date. Meanwhile, Em’s ongoing fling with Connell, a married, thirty-something maintenance man (Ryan Reynolds), poses a more significant obstacle.
Mottola’s delicate coming-of-age tale unfolds intelligently and without obvious missteps, avoiding facile resolutions to the drama created by James and Em’s indiscretions. Rather than presenting Connell as a one-dimensional jerk, for instance, the film sees him as oddly sympathetic – pathetic in his resistance to adulthood (he consummates his affairs in his mother’s basement) but otherwise likable.
The movie’s best moments belong to Eisenberg and Stewart, whose bittersweet courtship feels as effortlessly authentic as everything else Adventureland has to offer. On some level, they are united by a common misery – everyone in the film, save for Hader and Kristen Wiig’s quirky park owners, seems to be running from something. But the joy they discover in each other’s company, when they’re not busy breaking each other’s hearts, is contagious and a delight to behold.
Adventureland is playing tonight at the Red Vic. For showtimes, click here. It arrives on Blu-Ray and DVD on Aug. 25.