by James Hansen
Like an overcast day in Pittsburgh spent shooting fireworks into a hazy, gray sky transitioning into buoyant rays of light shimmering off every window pane on the same rainy night in New York City, Adventureland cautiously lingers from moment to moment waiting for some kind of downpour as it deeply nestles into an aching malaise of ever-fleeting, completely fulfilling experience.
Director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad) layers Adventureland with an astonishing degree of restraint, which purposefully holds back fast and furious comedy instead preferring an intensely nuanced character-based approach that underlies comedic payoff while it immediately accesses acute emotional resonance. Though this challenging approach makes Adventureland’s small [character driven] missteps a bit more pungent, Adventureland remains a complete success on every track and stands as the most engaged, dedicated, and truly moving comedy since BBC’s The Office.
Adventureland, like most other films about the post-pubescent boy-man, is a story about “THE loss of innocence” over that final summer before boy-man’s life spins into a new direction. In this case, the boy-man is James (Jesse Eisenberg) who, subsequently, is already more intellectual man than boy. Accepted into a Columbia graduate program for writing and constantly spouting stories about the work of Charles Dickens, James is set for success until financial troubles force him to abandon his longtime friend on a trip to Europe and stay in Pittsburgh to work at the local park Adventureland. Far from being the summer of his dreams, James’s ride becomes stalled. Importantly, James has never had an intention of “losing” his virginity, as the psychological complications that typically go with such a decision are not beyond his grasp, as they often are in classic teen comedies.
While some critics have misplaced James’ desire to lose his virginity (some have mistakenly claimed it the sole reason for his actions throughout the movie) the relationship he develops with Em (a fantastic Kristen Stewart) is far from a move to nail a chick and claim his manhood; rather, Adventureland focuses on the unexpected and very real bond between the two – oddly enough, sex becomes secondary. While virginity is a topic of conversation, it isn’t like James wanders around angry that they aren’t having sex or tossing around stories about sexual exploits. If anything, James’s extreme ideological shift to object-of-lust Lisa P is misconstrued and an extremely artificial plot point instead of naturally growing out of the deeply constructed characters.
Similarly, Adventureland makes great use of its secondary characters to heighten the emotional and comedic payoff of the two leads. Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park maintenance man who curiously spins the story of his glory day jamming with Lou Reed, begins as a sort-of mentor for James despite his conflicted interest with Em – something James and the rest of the park employees fail to realize. Even when things take a bad turn, Mike and James make clear the type of men they already are in an extraordinary moment where they bridge a gap together while they simultaneously burn the bridge down. Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig) run the schticky park and, despite being purposefully one-note, they add a certain charm to the place even as the characters begin to abandon it. Perhaps the most important secondary characters, however, is Joel (Martin Starr), James’ friend who sees right through him even when his own vision becomes broken. Joel realizes the kind of person he really is, and he challenges James to do the same.
While Adventureland stands out for its emotional complexity, future viewings will undoubtedly uncover a multitude of sly comedy, which is subtly built into each character. It is vastly different both stylistically and comedically from any other recent comedy, resulting in its dismal box office on opening weekend, but twice as effective for the same reason. Mottola, along with the superb performances from the cast, especially Eisenberg and Stewart, take this familiar premise to a place it has never been before. By embedding it in time with a wide ranging, supremely effective soundtrack, Adventureland is timely, timeful, and uniquely deliberate as to be constructed in a specific period yet perfectly translatable to the next. Adventureland has characters that will continue to grow in the future, and, just like its titular park, it has the ability to stick around no matter the time – next week, next summer, next generation.