“It’s funny because it’s true” has always been a handy and accurate adage in describing perceptive observational comedy. The humor doesn’t have to try hard to land its punchlines because it’s all grounded in easily identifiable but no less painful truths about day to day life. It’s this infinitely rich, varied, and, yes, truthful terrain that writer-director Greg Mottola sets up shop to tell his semi-autobiographical tale, Adventureland, about college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) slumming it as a games concessionaire at a chintzy Pittsburgh amusement park. The year: 1987, a time that Mottola handily evokes with a power pop soundtrack fueled by such era staples as The Cure, Crowded House, INXS and, of course, Falco, whose “Rock Me Amadeus” becomes the target of a recurring, affectionate gag.
It’s the summer between college and the rest of his life and, too broke to join his friends on a summer-long European jaunt, James is stuck at the titular park — a kind of metaphorical limbo as James struggles to sort out his future. He’s a brainy, idealistic and romantic kid, but full of artistic and intellectual ambition. He’s still a virgin by default because the opportunity to close the deal with the girls he’s dated never presented themselves — okay, this kid may be too neurotic for his own good.
But at Adventureland, James falls like he never has for Em (Kristen Stewart), a co-worker — a saturnine beauty, adrift romantically and nursing bitterness towards her father for his past callousness towards her late mother, and towards his tawdry new replacement wife. Both unsure and afraid of what the future holds, yet eagerly faithful to its possibilities, James and Em strike up a solid friendship that soon wavers into a tentative romance. It’s complicated, though — it always is, right? — because Em is carrying on a sad, hopeless affair with the park’s married handyman and would-be musician, Mike (Ryan Reynolds) — the kind of cad whose good looks spare him from complete loserdom. Torn with jealousy, James tries straying with the resident lust object, Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), but, while Mike is clearly contemptible (he claims to have once jammed with Lou Reed, James’ idol, but is oblivious to the song “Satellite of Love”), he’s too pitiable for both James’ and us to level much scorn on him.
James’ journey is one of finding self-assurance through inner wisdom, not shows of bravado — a hard-won skill that the nerds among us perfect as we grow up. James develops a warm, charming rapport with his fellow young exile, Joel (Martin Starr), and it’s here, in the camaraderie among Adventureland’s underpaid, ennui-ridden employees — conversing through the haze of pot smoke, the blur of booze, and with a pop song on the radio or blaring through the park’s loudspeakers — that the movie mines its romantic and existential riches. Mottola’s cast is uniformly winning, especially Eisenberg, who’s maturing into an excellent and nuanced actor, and Stewart who gives Em equal parts sass and vulnerability. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig provide the otherwise aching, wistful material a welcome off-kilter goofiness, and help counter less successful casting choices, like Reynolds, who’s got the swagger and the looks of the narcissistic Mike but none of the foxiness by which such characters prey and seduce.
What keeps Adventureland in the merely “very good,” rather than “excellent,” range is a combination of its unimaginative look and a second act that feel repetitious and earns its rewards with falsely amped up confrontations. On the latter score, James and Em’s on-again-off-again quasi-romance goes through the motions of jealousy and heartbreak once too often. Meanwhile, Mottola jumps the gun in portraying Em’s face-off with her parents — a long-awaited moment that still feels abrupt and melodramatic, full of fire, yet premature because their dynamics are underdeveloped.
While Adventureland may be among the year’s most pleasing comedies, it’s also among its ugliest looking films. It’s the same drawback that I found in the Mottola-directed Superbad — a sharp teen comedy with a saggy script and God-awful visual palette. The palette in both films is bleak, steeped in despondent browns, yellows, with washed-out reds and blues, with no attempts at visual experimentation that youth films — with their emotional and physical energy — demand (see Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together as an exemplar).
I understand that adolescence is messy, grimy, frequently joyless and ugly, and perhaps Mottola tries for an aesthetic approximation in his cinema. But, in the end, a flatly composed, uninteresting look is just that, and there is no aesthetic defense to justify it. I hope that Motolla develops more creative, inventive uses for lighting and camera is his future portrayals of youthful angst. On balance, though, Adventureland is one of the most honest, tender and heartfelt coming-of-age comedies to come along since Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), which also starred Eisenberg. The movie’s rewards outpace its flaws by a mile and give us another reason to follow the career of a gifted young lead actor.
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Written by: Greg Mottola
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Bill Hader, Matt Bush, Martin Starr, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Reynolds, Paige Howard, Margarita Levieva