If the humor in director Greg Mottola’s Superbad was largely credited to writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, then surely Mottola deserves accolades for taking all those dick jokes and giving them a sturdier than expected emotional context; like it or not, there’s a kind of gritty sweetness to the way the core male relationship played out in that film, and it’s that kind of emotional truth that Mottola brings in spades to Adventureland. Directing from his own screenplay, Mottola creates a film that’s funny without being wacky and sweet without being saccharine, and he manages to perfectly capture that glistening moment right between youth and whatever comes next. The film is a heartbreaking, bittersweet coming-of-age story born of Mottola’s own experiences working summer jobs, but it’s broad enough to resonate as more than just a comedy about (post-)teens. It couldn’t be further from Superbad in tone or execution — for just starters, no one’s pants are at any point stained with menstrual blood — but it’s that film’s direct descendant in emotional honesty and its filmmaker’s decision to mature just like his characters.
It’s 1987, and James (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college. He’s got big plans for life after school that start with a backpacking trip through Europe, which is more a convenient shorthand for James’ socioeconomic status and blindered view of life than anything else. But his parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick), who had promised to help him out, let him down, and his only way forward is to seek out that humiliating milestone of everyone’s youth, the summer job. After realizing he doesn’t even have the proven skills to wait tables or drive a truck, James turns to Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), a mildly psychotic friend from his childhood, to get him a gig working at Adventureland, a local theme park/carnival. The park is staffed by young men and women James’ age who find themselves stuck there and would gladly leave if only they had someplace better to be. Joel (Martin Starr), showing James the ropes of how to run the various ring-toss and water balloon games he’ll be overseeing for the season, reminds him that they’re “doing the work of lazy, pathetic morons.” At the park, James also meets Em (Kristen Stewart), the kind of tragically pouty young girl destined to lead boys like James to dangerous conclusions about their lives. One of the great things about Mottola’s story is that it takes what in a simpler film would be James’ entire goal — pursuing and hopefully being with Em — and makes it a first-act signpost. James and Em flirt and date and hang out with the other employees at house parties, and it’s because the goal here isn’t some basic romantic comedy but an actual emotional arc that pushes past easier beginnings and endings and gets at the hearts of the characters. It’s always more daring to explore an actual relationship instead of just the anticipation of one. There’s less of a safety net below the characters, and Mottola is wonderful at the way he explores how these people on the brink of adulthood feel about each other and what that means for the lives they’re still trying to figure out how to lead.
But in case I’ve made the film sound somehow too maudlin — and James is admittedly the kind of guy who listens to Velvet Underground while thinking Really Intensely about the girl riding shotgun — I should point out again that it’s also a comedy, and a great one. Starr is incisive and soulful as Joel, a pipe-smoking elder statesman among the employees who bonds with James because they’re two of the smarter ones forced to dispense prizes to tourists. The park is run by Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), who have a fantastic comic chemistry and whose scenes often contain randomly improvised moments. Frigo won’t stop punching James in the balls because it’s something he started doing to kids when he was 5 years old and never grew tired of doing. Mottola’s screenplay is packed with a dry but heartfelt wit he sharpened working behind the camera on “Undeclared” and “Arrested Development,” and he’s funny in an honest way, by which I mean his characters are never meant to be ironic comments on modern youth or placeholders for real people. There’s a straightforwardness to his comedy, and that grants it emotional heft. Mottola is also far too talented to let his film become some kind of 1980s in-joke, where characters riff about the wonders of the VCR or car phones or some similarly cheap, easy way to skewer the era. James and his newfound friends at the park live in normal houses with older cars and don’t talk about them as if they’re in a period movie. They just live their lives.
The bulk of the film follows James’ mercurial relationship with Em and how it affects his dwindling time at the park, and what it means for his life after that summer. Eisenberg was basically born for roles like this one, playing a smart, sensitive, nervous little guy who gets youthfully smitten. He’s got the courage to let himself get in too deep in a relationship, to overcommit out of fear of not doing anything, and he inhabits the character so well it’s like Mottola wrote it just for him. Stewart is about as good as she’s ever been, which is to say she’s adequate at seeming vaguely desirable and excellent at playing mute and aloof. The surprise standout is Ryan Reynolds as Mike, an easygoing maintenance guy at the park who plays in a local band and trades on tall tales about jamming with Lou Reed to impress the ever younger visitors and employees at the park. Reynolds is allowed to play his own age and play it quietly, and he does some of his most interesting work to date by creating a slightly skeevy adult who hates what he’s become but doesn’t quite have the motivation to snap out of it. But Adventureland truly belongs to Mottola, who firmly establishes himself as a skilled writer-director with a story about love, youth, and what it feels like to drown in possibility. James and Em are forced to confront the very real chance that their lives will be more defined by loss than gain, or at least by the risk of loss as opposed to the safety of retreat, and when James hears Lou Reed sing about “everything I had but couldn’t keep,” you know it’s the first time he’s really understood the idea.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.