© 2009 Ray Wong
The 80s is now the new 50s when it comes to movie nostalgia. Adventureland, produced by the people who brought us Superbad, takes us back to the big hair and Madonna of the late 80s with equal parts of corniness and sincerity.
James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a gawkish college grad who has everything planned out: he's going to travel around Europe with his best friend throughout the summer of 1987 before heading to New York to attend grad school at Columbia. His plans are dashed when his father got downsized. Instead, James has to find a summer job. He ends up working at an amusement park, Adventureland, near Pittsburgh.
Assigned to tending the parlor games, Jesse is bored out of his mind. He gets to meet an eclectic group of college kids who also work at the park. And thanks to his good nature and a bag of weed his best friend gave him, James becomes quite popular among these people, including beautiful and perfect Em (Kristen Stewart). James and Em eventually gets involved, but only cautiously as they've both been emotional hurt before. Behind the sweet and innocent facade, Em has personal issues, and she's secretly having an affair with the resident stud, married maintenance man Mike (Ryan Reynolds).
Meanwhile, virginal James is enjoying his new found popularity -- even beauty queen Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) is hitting on him. James is too kind and naive for his own good, and considerate to a fault. Confused about what he wants and caught between lies and desires, James learns a few lessons before the summer ends.
Jesse Eisenberg (Cursed) has a strangely affection demeanor, and is perfectly cast as James. He is a self-awared dork, but also charming and handsome at the same time. Eisenberg has a natural way of conveying that awkwardness as a guy stuck between being clueless and confident. He makes us believe in the character, who is aware of his inadequacy but also totally unaware and uncomfortable with being attractive.
As the object of his affection, Kristen Stewart (Twilight) is aloof, enigmatic, and agreeable. She's beautiful enough to make us believe all the guys are secretly (or not so secretly) in love with her. However, Stewart lacks the ability to really jump out of her own skin -- her portrayal is somewhat wooden. She's not a very expressive actress, and perhaps that is an advantage she has for playing the enigmatic Em.
The supporting cast do their jobs very well. SNL pros Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are fun as the goofy park managers. Martin Starr (The Incredible Hulk) plays the quintessential nerd/loser to perfection. Margarita Levieva (The Invisible) is spot on -- from the big hair to the dance moves to her make-up and body language -- as a 80s sex kitten. And Ryan Reynolds (Definitely, Maybe) is both cocky and vulnerable as the womanizing douche.
Written and directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad), the script is surprising un-Superbad-like. The marketing of this film does it a disservice but positioning it as yet another teenage sex comedy. The fact is, Adventureland is a coming of age romance set in the 80s. It's more dramatic than comedic, and has the kind of sincerity and melancholy that are rare in youth comedy. The plot is rather sparse -- there is a "slice of life" feel to it, with the story spanning one summer, and a cast of eclectic characters. The story is almost episodic sometimes, with an over all arc detailing James' growth and his relationships with everyone. The dialogue is witty but not over the top comedic (with the exception of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig's characters, who are mostly there for comic relief).
If the plot seems slight, it's because it is. There are not a lot of stakes in the story, and much of it is frankly trivial. It's a boy-meets-girl story at the core, with a healthy serving of coming of age. What it does well, though, is the re-creation of the era. Anyone who grew up in the 80s would appreciate the authentic look and feel. It may be easy to duplicate the hair, the make-up, the cars, the music, but I give kudos to Mottola for creating an atmosphere that takes me back in time. The 80s to Adventureland is the 50s to The American Graffiti.
Mottola's direction is low-key and straightforward. He doesn't try to manipulate the audience. Instead, he presents the story and the era as is, and succeeds in transporting us back in time. The production is excellent, especially the choice of music. I chuckle at the incessant replay of Rock Me Amadeus, for example. And the 80s disco scenes are a hoot. It is hard to believe that is 22 years ago, and I feel old!
While Adventureland is not something that stands out or garners huge attention, and there's nothing new in the plot, the story is told with such humor, sensitivity and heart that it's worth venturing to the theater or video store for.
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Martin Starr, Margarita Levieva, Ryan Reynolds
Director: Greg Mottola
Writer: Greg Mottola
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug use, and sexual content
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.4 out of 10