Film Review: Adventureland

Greg Mottola follows up 'Superbad' with another sweet and funny (though far less foul-mouthed) coming-of-age comedy.

After Say Anything, Garden State and Superbad, do we really need another movie where a dweeby nebbish improbably wins the heart of a gorgeous babe? Probably not, but when that movie is as charming as Adventureland, it's hard to complain too much. Like Cameron Crowe and Zach Braff before him, writer-director Greg Mottola (who also helmed Superbad) drew on his own youthful experiences in crafting the story of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), an overeducated college grad whose carefully planned path to success—a summer in Europe followed by graduate school at Columbia University—hits a speed bump when his dad loses his job, knocking the family out of their comfortable upper-class tax bracket.

With Europe an impossibility and grad school seriously in jeopardy, James has to find a summer gig and fast. Unfortunately, the only place willing to hire him is Adventureland, a slightly seedy Long Island theme park, where he toils long hours for minimum wage. (Funnily enough, Adventureland is a real-world Long Island landmark, but the film was actually shot at a park in Pennsylvania.) Assigned to the games area—which, as every theme-park employee knows, is much less cool then working rides—James befriends sarcastic stoner Joel (Martin Starr) and makes goo-goo eyes at brainy, beautiful Em (Kristen Stewart, fresh off her Twilight success), who is secretly carrying on an affair with the park's married handyman/aspiring musician, Mike (Ryan Reynolds). Oh, and did I mention that—like a certain recent comic-book movie—Adventureland is set in 1987 and features lots of period-appropriate music and fashions? Thankfully, this ’80s throwback doesn't feature an absurd soft-core sex scene scored to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Material this familiar requires a strong ensemble of actors to make the proceedings fresh and funny, and Mottola has staffed his film with comic ringers, particularly Starr, who is fondly remembered by "Freaks and Geeks" fans as one of that show's most reliable scene-stealers. He scores most of Adventureland's funniest lines as well and is always on hand to lighten the mood whenever James' constant navel-gazing gets too overbearing. “Saturday Night Live” regulars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader also keep the laughs flowing as the eccentric couple who own Adventureland. (As funny as these two are, however, their broad performances don't always mesh with the movie's otherwise low-key comic tone.)

Forced by plot machinations to shoulder much of the film's dramatic weight, Eisenberg and Stewart aren't able to have as much fun as the supporting players, but they deliver strong performances anyway. With his shock of brown hair and rapid, overanxious delivery, Eisenberg can't help but bring to mind a young Woody Allen and, in fact, one can easily imagine James growing up to be Isaac Davis or Mickey Sachs. It would have been easy for Stewart to play Em as the typical manic pixie dream girl who teaches the nerdy hero how to loosen up and enjoy life. To the actress' credit, she doesn't idealize the character; at times, Em is a pill to be around and Stewart portrays that side of her honestly.

Much closer in spirit to Mottola's debut feature The Daytrippers than Superbad—which was unmistakably a Judd Apatow production—Adventureland confirms that the writer-director's strengths are working with actors (particularly young actors) and mining comedy from the mundanity of everyday life. But both of his self-penned films suffer from an overwhelming sense that we've seen this same story told many times before. Instead of reminding us of real life, they remind us of other movies. That doesn't mean that Adventureland isn't a pleasant viewing experience, but you might leave the theatre with a nagging sense that you liked this movie better when it was called Say Anything.