For anyone looking for a rehash of director Greg Mottola’s last film, Superbad (2007), don’t expect to find it in the filmmaker’s latest movie, Adventureland. Despite trailers attempting to convince the moviegoing public of the contrary, Adventureland is, in many ways, the anti-Superbad.
Sure, the two films have commonalities. They’re both stories about the awkward times before adult maturity, they both trade in recreational drug use and the sexual proclivities of young adults, but that’s where the comparisons end. Where Superbad is a movie fully ensconced in the tradition of raunchy teen-sex comedies, Adventureland is a much more subdued brand of comedy, and might be the first coming-of-age story made for adults.
Mottola tweaks many of the tropes and expectations involved in these types of movies. For starters, Mottola has centered the story around twentysomethings (all thankfully played by twentysomethings), an idea that’s especially refreshing in an era of cinema so intent on pleasing the all-important teenage demographic. While the nebbishy, awkward, virginal main character of James (Jesse Eisenberg, The Squid and the Whale) is a cliché at this point in the history of cinema, he’s never simply defined by these traits. He’s more a character in search of some sort of enlightenment or romance than just another teen out to lose his virginity, an aspect that only rarely rears its head. It’s a film about the often-frightening aimlessness of life, the awkwardness of growing into adulthood, and the way plans and goals are wont to change—all handled in an intimate and caring way.
The story arc itself is simple; it’s the characters and interpersonal relationships developed from within that help the film stand out. Set in 1987, James is a recent college grad with hopes of heading off to Europe for the summer to embark on some sort of unknown “revelatory” experience before enrolling in grad school at Columbia. But soon after graduation, he learns that his father (Jack Gilpin, 21) is in a bit of a financial bind. So instead of heading abroad, James winds up reluctantly stuck in Pittsburgh (“People in Pittsburgh don’t like me. I read poetry for fun sometimes.”) and is forced to get a summer job at a skuzzy theme park named Adventureland.
From here, the film becomes the story of the subtly complicated, often intertwined relationships, the desires and dreams of James and his co-workers: the nerdy, Jewish (or “existential pagan,” to be exact) and sweet tempered Joel (Martin Starr, Superbad); Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the thirtysomething-year-old handyman who’s one-time claim to fame was playing with Lou Reed; and most importantly, James’ romance with Em (Kristen Stewart, Twilight).
On paper, the plot is nothing spectacular, and the filmmaking isn’t going to set the world ablaze; instead what gives the film life is Mottola’s writing. As a writer, Mottola is closer to Woody Allen than Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen or whatever other comedic talent is a hot commodity right now. It’s no surprise that in a recent interview, Mottola named Allen’s Manhattan (1979) as one of his five favorite films of all time, since Adventureland carries the same sense of romantic idealism and how to reconcile that within a world which doesn’t cater to such a model.
There’s a passion and intimacy in this effort that didn’t exist in Superbad (which, granted, Mottola didn’t write), and a maturity on full display here throughout that didn’t spring up until the end of Superbad. The director has an obvious love for his characters and the ‘80s era (the film’s soundtrack—consisting of luminaries such as The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, among others—captures the feel of the ‘80s better than the generic soundtrack-by-committee feel of Zach Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) ever dreamt of). And while the film is occasionally sentimental, it’s tastefully accomplished. For whatever nostalgia Mottola has placed in the ‘80s, he never forgets to remind the audience that this was also the decade that put Reagan in office, Poison on MTV and “Rock Me Amadeus” on the radio.
None of this means that Adventureland is a perfect film. There are occasions when the comedy verges on becoming too broad and doesn’t match the tone of the film, and the rain-soaked climax is a bit much (though it eventually evolves into a sweeter moment that’s hard to dismiss). But ultimately, this is a sweet-natured and amiably tempered film, something that’s too often missing from mainstream cinema. Rated R for language, drug use and sexual references.