Greg Mottola’s Adventureland borrows heavily from the worn old bag of comedy gags that only middle-schoolers truly find funny (boner jokes, vomit humor, and boys socking each other in the pants), but the movie distinguishes itself from its peers and succeeds as a heartfelt “coming of age” comedy precisely because it doesn’t let this twelve-year-old humor take control the way similar films are apt to do these days. Instead, its focus is on its characters, who are flawed, genuine young adults confronting for the first time real adult issues in their relationships with friends, family, and love interests.
It’s the summer of 1987 and recent college graduate James Brennan (played by Jesse Eisenberg, because Michael Cera was busy) is stuck at home after his parents, due to cutbacks at his father’s job, couldn’t produce the funds to finance his European backpacking trip with a friend. Forced into a summer job at Adventureland, the local amusement park, James looks forward to an awful summer at home in Pittsburgh. Assigned to work at a game booth in the park, James makes friends with Joel (Martin Starr), another games stand worker, and has his life saved by Em (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart), his angsty, budding romantic interest in the film.
Adventureland’s intelligence and heart lies in the precarious relationship between James and Em. A cookie-cutter film would have matched them together without any conflicts, but a big problem comes between the two in the form of Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the older and very married maintenance man at the park to whom Em is sexually involved. The relationship is not only a roadblock to our hero’s attempts to win the girl over but also adds a self-destructive element to Em’s character. She knows that James is the better guy, and she has a strong—and more importantly, appropriate—connection with him, but finds difficulty in walking away from the older man. She tells James she wants to take things slow and he respects that, but instead of being the good little boy who waits patiently, he goes out with the most popular female worker at the park, Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva).
Eisenberg plays James with such sincerity and warmth, with just the right touch of the self-deprecating dry humor that Michael Cera has turned into an art form, that you have to love him even when he screws up royally. He has a touch of that “virgin-on-the-prowl” attitude so common in teen sex comedies. But this doesn’t define his character the way it did with Jonah Hill in Superbad. Instead, James is a sentimental soul who craves an emotional connection with someone almost desperately, and it is the revelation that Em has preferred Mike the Maintenance Man over him which nearly implodes their entire relationship.
As a girl with father issues and a stepmother who despises her, Em is a mess, and James is a ray of sunshine for her; he respects and appreciates her. While the relationship between Em and James could have been played melodramatically, Em’s struggle to regain her self-esteem is handled intelligently, and the film avoids portraying James as her absolute savior. James, flawed and emotional, doesn’t act like the shining white knight you might expect him to be, and he doesn’t come sweeping in to save her at her most vulnerable moment; in fact, he makes the situation even worse for her. The only really kitschy part of the film is its happy ending, which probably would have worked better if it took a cue from Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. Even so, while James and Em end up together, the ending is still respectable because it does not fully resolve their respective problems.
Mottola, who previously helmed the wildly popular Superbad, knows how to pack a dramatic punch while also delivering the laughs. Where John Hughes was the quintessential teen movie king of the 1980s, Mottola proves he is the current generation’s loudest voice. Adventureland is not Superbad by any means, and hopefully audiences won’t walk in expecting horndogs and pure raunchiness; the film will disappoint viewers looking for cheap laughs at the expense of a nude body or a sex-crazed teen boy. Adventureland is about human relationships and what it means to be on the brink of adulthood with all its confusion and responsibility while struggling to retain that happy-go-lucky freedom of not being an adult just yet.