Though it doesn't happen very often, every once in a while a delightfully great movie shows up in multiplexes at a surprisingly early moment in the year (in this case, the usually mediocre month of April). Adventureland defies all of the expectations one has of the average "summer romance" movie, and in doing so, gives its audience an incredible gift: a sharp, honest and realistic drama of the highest caliber, backed by pitch-perfect performances across the board. Two years ago, director Greg Mottola achieved comedic greatness with Superbad, and surprise of surprises, he's now achieved equal greatness in the genre of drama (which is, indeed, the label that applies to Adventureland, regardless of what the trailers lead you to believe, but more on that later). This is a supremely deft exploration of the doldrums of post-college life, and at the same time, it's a wonderfully insightful look at the cracks that often fracture romantic relationships.
It's a few hours after he's finished a pivotal stage of his life: James (Jesse Eisenberg) just got out of his college graduation, and he's enjoying a celebration lunch with his parents. His scholastic range is far from limited. Though it's obvious that the written word is what he's most passionate about, seeing as he majored in Comparative Literature/Renaissance Studies and aspires to be a travel essayist, we also learn that he got a 770 in the Math section of his SATs, and that he's meticulously calculated the costs of the trip to Europe that he plans to enjoy as his graduation present. Too bad that his father just got demoted and that not only will he be unable to afford the trip, but he'll have to stay home for the summer and get a job before heading to graduate school in Columbia in the fall. When his parents break this news to him, the absent-minded James doesn't initially "get" the concept that he won't be able to do what he had planned for so long, but he soon finds himself having to accept the situation. The film moves through these early scenes quickly, and soon has James getting a job at the titular amusement park, thus marking the beginning of an unforgettable summer for him, an experience that is every bit as surprisingly exciting and heart-wrenching for him as it is for the viewer to watch.
The main focus of Adventureland is on the flaws that tend to afflict relationships, the aspects that can make them unhealthy, and ultimately, the glimmers of hope that they may be able to work in spite of everything not being 100% cutesy and perfect. The film works enormously well because of its ability to portray this through a cliche-free approach that doesn't feel the need to wrap everything up into a neat little package. James meets fellow Adventureland employee Em (Kristen Stewart), and we sense immediate chemistry and a clear attraction on both parts. The awkwardness of their initial courtship is handled flawlessly, from their very first conversation to the first time they kiss. But there are obstacles here. James is a virgin, and his over-educated self refers to the act of sex as "intercourse," while Em seems to be quite experienced (and she uses the term "fucking" instead). Things get even more complicated when we discover that Em is having a worse-than-unhealthy, strictly carnal relationship with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who is the maintenance guy at the park, and happens to be married. In addition to that, Adventureland's resident bombshell Lisa (Margarita Levieva) takes an interest in James: "I wouldn't mind dating a nice guy for a change," she says, and the other guys who work at the park tell James that he's an idiot if he doesn't go for it, even though it's quite clear where his heart is.
I know what you're thinking. The above description of the love triangle (or "love square," I guess) that unfolds throughout the movie makes it seem as though Adventureland is entirely conventional, and you probably think you know exactly what's going to happen. I admit that, as I was watching it, I was fearfully waiting for the first contrivance to emerge and for it to go downhill from there. As a more than pleasant surprise, not only does that never happen, but the movie goes in the opposite direction of what we'd normally expect. Everything about Adventureland sets it up to being vulnerable to fall into tons of traps that most films fall into, but Mottola never allows this to happen. The plot set-up would make one expect Em to get pissed at James as soon as she finds out about his involvement with Lisa, but in a masterfully written, truly great scene, where James goes to the house where Em and Connell have their encounters, the film takes a path that is so much more accurate in terms of portraying how these situations unfold in real life - it's a heart-breaking scene, to be sure, but at the same time, it's so refreshing to see something like this handled with oodles of honesty.
Em is a deeply flawed character, but so compelling and easy to like, and it's not hard to understand why James falls for her. Her mother passed away two years ago, and she now has a stepmother who wears what Em describes as "an unholy abomination" of a wig (I started loving Em as soon as she said this, and the scene towards the end involving the wig, despite its dramatic intensity, is hilarious). Though one may assume from the early scenes that James is this self-absorbed intellectual who'll be impossible to sympathize with, the movie does such an excellent job at portraying both his charms and his weaknesses, that it's impossible not to fall in love with him just as much. This is a wonderful, off-beat pair of lovebirds.
Restraint is crucial in films like Adventureland, and it's the lack of it that makes so many films of its ilk falter miserably, yet it's evident in literally every scene in this film. There are things that could have ruined the movie had they been overdone. There's a running joke involving James' childhood friend Frigo (Matt Bush) punching James in the balls whenever he gets the chance, and this had every opportunity to become a lame gag, but instead, the film employs it as a way of conveying the shittiness of the protagonist's situation. After an instance of it, Em asks "What the hell was that?" and a resigned James responds "It's just my life." Mottola goes even further in avoiding mediocrity, though: because of this running joke, Frigo seems to have the potential to be that lone annoying character who ruins an otherwise great film, but as the movie's events unfold, he becomes more of a charming jokester, and one we can actually like. Another example of the wise sense of restraint exhibited in the film involves the presence of Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), the unorthodox employers of James, who could've easily been bothersome caricatures, but their comedic influence on the plot is handled in a perfectly subtle way that makes the characters never lose authenticity.
However, the best example of the amazing subtleness employed by Mottola comes across during the climax of Adventureland, which is nothing short of terrific. For all the greatness that came before it, if a single false note had been hit during the final minutes of the film, everything would've come crashing down, but this is a conclusion that is handled in a mind-blowingly expert way. Nothing is said or shown that we don't need to hear or see, and the film doesn't once falter from staying true to the personas of its two lead characters as it draws to a close, and the credits start rolling precisely when they need to. It's difficult to discuss this without going into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that the ending is not only both delightfully rendered and entirely realistic in terms of the context of the plot, but it's also honest in terms of the way two normal 22-year-olds would act in a situation like this. There's nothing overly romantic or corny here, and the passion is searingly palpable without being overblown - it's simply brilliant.
There's no other way to put it: Jesse Eisenberg gives an astoundingly great performance in Adventureland. James could've so easily been an annoying intellectual or a generic, angst-filled twenty-something, yet Eisenberg avoids this at all costs. As good as he was in Roger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale, his work here is far superior. Watch every eye movement, particularly in the tougher, more awkward moments that James faces, and notice how dead-on he is. Kristen Stewart has never failed to impress, particularly in largely unseen films like Fierce People and In the Land of Women, and she managed the insurmountable task of holding her own and coming away unscathed from a project as mediocre as Twilight. She's clearly a master at portraying emotional weakness and vulnerability, and her turn in Adventureland is no exception. Kristen Wiig always cracks me up when she does her reticent, awkward shtick, which she happily brings to this film, and Bill Hader is particularly hilarious in a scene involving a baseball bat that needs to be enjoyed for its undeniable uproariousness. Margarita Levieva was great in the underrated The Invisible, and here, her acting matches the film's unconventional tone, as she avoids playing an empty, bitchy bombshell, and gives us an entirely three-dimensional character. The thing that worried me most about the cast, prior to watching the film, was the presence of Ryan Reynolds. Last year's Definitely, Maybe was good, but could've been great had he not been miscast as the lead. Put simply, his acting has always annoyed me... until now. I thought the film was in trouble because, based on who his character was, it seemed obvious that he was simply going to be a generic, annoying jerk, but of course, "generic" is clearly not a word we can use to describe Mottola's cinematic work. Surprising as it sounds, Reynolds is extremely good, as the over-confident (yet clearly troubled) Connell. Maybe he should stick to drama instead of comedy because his dramatic acting in Adventureland is indicative of heaps of potential.
I don't have a single bad thing to say about this miracle of a movie. But I do have something that I absolutely need to complain about. The advertising for Adventureland has been nothing short of atrocious. The trailer is terrible, terrible, terrible. It highlights certain moments to make the movie seem like this dumb, gag-filled comedy, and then they have the announcer say "From the director of Superbad..." As a result of this, the comment of "Eh, it wasn't as funny as Superbad" has been heard from several people who have seen it. This is a mistake. It's an understandable mistake because the trailers deceived them, but it is a mistake because Adventureland is NOT a comedy. It's a drama, and a truly great one. It is NOT comparable to Superbad because they fall into different genres, despite coming from the same director. Also, don't forget that, even though Mottola directed Superbad, the screenplay for that film was not written by him, but by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (who then continued displaying their proficiency in comedic script-writing last year with Pineapple Express). In the case of Adventureland, though, Mottola both directed and wrote it. To be blunt, they were completely off-base in the advertising, and the strategy didn't give them any profitable results either, as Adventureland hasn't done well at all at the box office, unfortunately. Then again, this gem of a movie is probably the type that will appeal to a smaller group of people who will hopefully discover it when it comes out on DVD.
Adventureland is a treasure. It's fantastically endearing, insightful and quirky, and at the same time, it's entirely fearless in its rejection of standard romantic movie conventions. As a result of that, it's a thousand times more reflective of actual life than most of the fluffy and/or contrived junk that gets dumped in multiplexes, particularly at this time of the year. Some may argue that they don't go to the movie theater to witness real life, but rather, to escape from it. My answer to that is that, as understandable as that feeling is, and as much as I often feel that way as well, what's more refreshing is to get an authentic slice of life that also happens to be deeply moving and even reminiscent of things one has actually experienced, even if some of those things bring painful memories. It's because of its huge success at that, and because of its magnificent script and stellar performances, that Adventureland represents a great movie-watching experience that I can't wait to enjoy a second time.