'Adventureland': A Game Worth Playing
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Greg Mottola's "Adventureland" is being sold as a follow-up to his raucous, funny "Superbad" -- maybe, considering its post-university timeframe for its lead character, as "Supergrad" -- but don't be fooled by the advertising. Starring Jesse Eisenberg as a Pennsylvania-based sad grad in '87 forced to work at a local funfair for the summer after his leaving university, "Adventureland" is a lot more character-driven and gently nostalgic than that film's crazed chaos, more "sweetlygood" than superbad. Nostalgia for the mid-to-late-80's may seem like a cruel joke of time, but as Generation X's memories and waistlines grow more full with the passage of the years, Mottola's made a movie that will work like a voodoo charm on a small-but-dedicated audience: onetime slackers who'll not only dig the soundtrack but, probably, be sure to get it on vinyl.
Eisenberg's James Brennan had big plans for the summer: a trip to Europe before starting post-grad work at Columbia. But dad's downsizing means he's going to have to stay in the States, and get work. Overeducated and underqualified, the only gig he can get is working the games at Adventureland, a shabby funfair where, for the workers, there's not much that's fun and precious little that's fair. James is told how the rigged games of "chance" work by co-worker Joel (Martin Starr), and under strict orders from manic manager Bobby (Bill Hader) and his wife, Paulette (Kristen Wiig) to never, under any circumstances, give out one of the top prize stuffed giant pandas: As Joel notes, "We pay Asian kids 10 cents to make these; we can't just give them away."
Trying to adapt, James makes friends with Joel, and catches the eye of fellow carny Em (Kristen Stewart) even as he falls under the dual spells of charismatic handyman Connell (Ryan Reynolds) and ride-operator Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), who's custom-cut her work tee to fall off-the-shoulder "Flashdance"-style. James is torn between the smart, sensitive, beautiful-but-somehow-bruised Em and the acid-wash glory of Lisa P., whose ass is presented as the platonic idea of the form, as he and Joel stick it to the man by underachieving and working while high.
Eisenberg is a great lead here -- just a touch pretentious (phoning a possible employer, James notes, "I've never driven an asphalt mixer per se ..." before he's hung up on), but never unlikeably so. Stewart's Em has her secrets, and her reasons, and her flaws, and Stewart's vulnerable, spooky power is used to nice effect. Casting Ryan Reynolds, a charming actor for whom things have always seemed a little too easy, as Connell, a charming man for whom things seem a little too easy, is something like a masterstroke. There aren't any huge moments in "Adventureland" -- no life-changing incidents or tragic accidents, no big mistakes or great revelations -- which means it's a movie that feels like life more than it feels like other movies.
"Adventureland" may have a plot of exposed lies and secret hearts, but it's also funny in ways big and small, from the running gag of James' struggle against his junk-punching nemesis Frigo (Matt Bush) to the period perfection of Lisa P.'s wardrobe. Mottola also directs with a steady hand that nonetheless makes the occasional grand gesture, as when the tense-but-tentative moments before and of James and Emily's first kiss are shot hand-held. It lends the scene all the fraught passion and misdirected energy of young love. "Adventureland" begins with big plans dashed by random problems and it ends with random gestures that could wind up looking like big plans, a story of a summer of something like love, bracketed by the music of the Replacements on both ends, with Falco and Crowded House inbetween. The film doesn't break the rules of the teen-movie game, but it plays out so deftly and gracefully with such a charming line of patter that it makes you feel like a winner even though you know it's rigged.