There's plenty to admire about Greg Mottola's new film, "Adventureland". You can admire that it comes from a place of emotional honesty while still finding fantastic humor. You can admire its diverse soundtrack that successfully draws on the period without drifting into nostalgia or constantly distracting you with "Hey, remember whens?" You can admire the depiction of a crappy summer job without romanticizing the profession or over-thinking it. But what I most admire about "Adventureland" and what has stayed with me the most is that it's an honest coming-of-age romance that approaches a young relationship from a perspective that's not idealized but completely loves its characters not in spite of their faults but because of them.
James' (Jesse Eisenberg) plans keep falling through. Recently graduated from Oberlin College in 1987 (as an Oberlin alum, this is where the film had me even though I'm no fan of my alma mater), James doesn't get to go backpacking through Europe as planned but instead has to work a crummy summer job just so he can almost afford the tuition for grad school at Columbia University. As he soon discovers, most crummy summer jobs don't want him since he has no previous job experience and his liberal arts education doesn't open a single door*.
James eventually finds a job at the theme park Adventureland and not because he has an impressive resume or they can see that he's exceedingly book smart. It's because he has an asshole childhood friend who already works there (yet another life lesson you won't find at a liberal arts college—it's not what you know; it's who you know). But when things look like they can't get any worse, James (who's also a virgin**) falls in love with fellow Adventureland employee, Em (Kristen Stewart). And this is where the film, when it could have gone absolutely cliché, becomes something very special instead.
Too often in these films we see the geeky guy win the hot, idealized woman through a mix of his lovable buffoonery and her sexual aggressiveness. At first, that seems to be where the James/Em relationship is heading. She clearly wants him and it's hilarious/painfully honest to watch him rely on his book-smarts since he has nothing in the way of relationship-smarts. But where most films would simply take the entire experience from James' perspective, we receive an equallity intimate look at Em's life and her problems and that makes the whole experience so rich and fulfilling because these are two characters who are having an honest, relatable relationship and not some masturbatory geek fantasy (those are nice too but this is far more rewarding).
Eisenberg and Stewart carry the film wonderfully. There are a bunch of great characters at the periphery, especially James and Em's co-worker Joel (Martin Starr predictably being great) who's similar to James but less attractive, lonelier, and perhaps as a result, far more misanthropic, but this film belong to its leads. There are young actors out there who may be funnier or may appeal more to the teeny-bopper demographic, but with this film and "The Squid and the Whale", there's no other young actor who plays real human beings like Eisenberg. He takes James in so many different places and all of them feel completely real.
Just as incredible is Stewart. After seeing her performance here, I'm glad that she's not slowing down to only do "Twilight" movies because she has so much more to offer than the limited Bella Swan character. Em has so much pain and anger and sadness as she's constantly cut off from relationships and when someone like James comes along who wants her completely, she doesn't know how to handle it. And yet there's a great strength to her character as well. The film makes the crucial distinction that the desire to be loved isn't the same thing as wanting to be saved and Em has a fury and rebellion in her that lets us know she doesn't need saving.
As I said in my opening paragraph, there's a lot to love about this film. While I think Mottola's previous film, "Superbad", was hilarious and unforgettable, "Adventureland" is a richer and all-around more rewarding experience. It reminds me of the best parts of "Freaks and Geeks" (and as anyone who has seen that show knows, there are a lot of "best parts") in that it's very funny but also rooted in genuine emotions and the awkward transitions to adulthood. It sees the humor and the pain in growing up and shies away from neither.
Rating ----- A minus
*I don't want to make this review about me personally, but while others may find the entry point in 1987 or the crappy summer job, I found it here. I cannot tell you how many Blockbuster Videos never called me back after I took their 45-minute computerized job application. I bask in the irony that I'm now a professional film journalist. Then I remember that a victory over Blockbuster is the most pyrrhic victory of all-time and that knowing what a "pyrrhic victory" is didn't help me get the job.
**My similarity with James ends here. I have had lots and lots of girlfriends and have had plenty of the sex. You don't even know.