Movie Review by Ann Hornaday: 'Adventureland'

Greg Mottola ("Superbad") directs this coming-of-age comedy about a college grad (Jesse Eisenberg) who meets a cast of characters while working at a local amusement park. Video by Miramax
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2009

As "Adventureland" opens, viewers may be tempted to think they know what they're in for: another coming-of-age romance, in this case with the added nostalgic twist of being set in the 1980s. But quickly it becomes clear that this amusing, observant and thoroughly satisfying drama/comedy won't take any expected turns and twists. Rather, in its own poignant and gentle way, "Adventureland" restores a welcome note of humanism to a genre that has lately become little more than a repository for fart-and-vomit jokes.

Jesse Eisenberg plays James Brennan, a recent college graduate whose plans for a European vacation before starting grad school are foiled when his family suffers an economic setback. James is forced to live at home and get a job at the local amusement park. There he meets an eclectic group of lost and striving souls, including a pipe-smoking would-be philosopher (Martin Starr), a voluptuous femme fatale (Margarita Levieva) and a sultry, mysterious girl named Em (Kristen Stewart), with whom James furtively falls in love.

That's the bare-bones story of "Adventureland," but in the hands of writer-director Greg Mottola, the movie becomes much more than the sum of its plot points. Although the boredom, slap-happy high jinks and hesitant romance of James's summer are all familiar movie tropes, "Adventureland" never attacks them right on the nose. Rather, the movie's style is oblique, looking for inspiration in the quiet quirks of behavior, rather than through less subtle gags and stunts (someone throws up in the movie, but it isn't played for cheap laughs).

Compulsive credit-watchers will know Mottola as the director who made the sneakily adorable teen comedy "Superbad" two years ago. But some know him as the guy who wrote and directed one of the most promising debut films of the 1990s, "The Daytrippers." That smart, sharply observed Manhattan picaresque not only introduced Liev Schreiber to the world (as part of a cast that included Parker Posey, Stanley Tucci and Hope Davis), but announced Mottola as that rare emerging filmmaker who resisted hipper-than-thou irony in favor of the far richer terrain of human frailty and redemption.

That deft touch is in full evidence in "Adventureland," in which Mottola manages to capture the absurdity and anguish of young adulthood, while never sacrificing meaning on the altar of crude humor. In another movie, Levieva's flirty, pouty Lisa P. would surely have been portrayed as an airhead or a vicious Queen Bee. But when she bluntly opines on another character's love life, she proves to be a surprisingly effective conduit for Mottola's own perceptive investigation of sexual double standards. This isn't to say "Adventureland" doesn't have its truly hilarious moments, most of them delivered by way of the improvisatory genius of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, who play theme park managers with daffy-deadpan earnestness.

As for Eisenberg and Stewart, they offer refreshingly laid-back examples of tortured young adults, even if Eisenberg's nervous mien and wispy falsetto will remind viewers a little too much of Michael Cera (when is someone going to cast them as brothers, already?). With her hands almost constantly obscuring her face, Stewart may be at the end of that particular gestural rope, but here those mannerisms work. The enigmatic girl at "Adventureland's" center seems terrified of truly being seen. Like most of Mottola's characters, Em is a complex stew of miscues and motivations. Even the film's nominal villain, a thwarted rock musician played by Ryan Reynolds with a welcome lack of actorly vanity, is more than anything else a victim of fear and self-deception.

With a soundtrack dominated by Lou Reed, the Replacements and one-hit-wonder Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus," Mottola's tender glance back to his own early 20s plays not just to viewers tuned in to his particular frequency. "Adventureland" will ring wistfully true to anyone who has fallen in love, left home or still wonders what it would be like to do either.

Adventureland (107 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for drug use, profanity and sexual references.

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