The latest film by Greg Mottola is vastly different from his previous directing effort, Superbad, although it contains come of the same sweetness and nostalgia experienced in the later moments of that movie. The main difference is that Greg also wrote Adventureland, and there's a real sense of personal experience coming through which adds to the richness of this distinctive look at a pivotal period in a young man's life. Yes, this is a "coming of age" film, but one that avoids many of the clichés that plague the genre and offers a look into the world of a few, unique, nuanced characters at that critical point where childhood meets adulthood.
The movie opens at a college party right before the graduation of our leading man, James (Jesse Eisenberg), and I have to admit, from those first few lines of dialog I thought we were in for a traditional, mindless, "desperately trying to lose my virginity," teenage sex romp. Thankfully, I was wrong. The setup for the rest of movie is brisk and to the point, but essentially James has to get a summer job instead of going to Europe because his dad got demoted from his job. The real meat and potatoes, if you will, begins when he applies at a really cheap looking amusement park (Adventureland, of course) as a last resort, seeing that his degree in some sort of European literature isn't worth a hill of beans without a master's degree to go along with it. At this meaningless summer job, he meets a slew of interesting characters, including Em (Kristen Stewart), for whom he almost instantly falls for. She's a very complex girl, with lots of parental issues and a total lack of self esteem and identity as made evident by her relationship with Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the repairs and maintenance guy. Mike is probably closing in on 30, married, but still enjoying the buffet of young co-eds working at the park. Reynolds' performance is understated and believable, and he does a good job of earning some sympathy for this otherwise pathetic human being. Also, Martin Starr, of Freaks and Geeks fame, gave a somewhat transcending performance as Joel, who becomes pretty good friends with James during the summer. As for the plot for the rest of the movie, there really isn't much of one. The kids sit around and smoke pot, go on dates, gossip, fight with their parents, get mad at each other, and pretty much just live their lives.
That's what it felt like, watching these characters actually experience this summer job and live through the relationships that are formed and subsequently broken or maintained. The comedy is there, but not quite as advertised. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play characters who are essentially there for comic relief, but the real humor comes from the many genuine moments between James and his friends, co-workers, or even the clientele. Each encounter feels real, like something from our own memory. It's a bit hazy, and maybe we don't remember the details exactly, but the feeling is there. We've been there. I don't think they needed to go where they did with the ending, it felt a little contrived, but in a way it earned it by getting it right consistently throughout.
Adventureland is one of my favorite films of 2009 so far, and although it's still early, I know that this one is going to stick with me. The personal style of storytelling really appealed to me and even though there wasn't a whole lot going on with the plot, it carried a lot of weight and was ultimately fulfilling. The trailers might mislead you into thinking this is Superbad 2; it isn't that, but it is a meaningful, heartfelt story which has been completely undersold, and deserves an audience. Go see it if you get a chance, then come on back and let me know your thoughts.