Friday, April 3, 2009

"Adventureland" review

There's nothing like walking into a movie thinking you know what you're going to get, and it's completely different from what was expected -- and better.

"Adventureland" is a delicious surprise. It resembles a horny comedy about a bunch of twentysomethings working at a fourth-rate amusement park in 1987. And it's written and directed by Greg Mottola, who also helmed "Superbad."

Wackiness, interspersed with a little sex, would seem to be the order of the day.

But "Adventureland" is much more ironic and sensitive than that. Yes, the main characters are young people who spend the summer working dreary jobs, drinking and smoking dope, and trying to get into each others' pants. But it's got a wry energy, and takes its characters very seriously in a way that a dumb sex comedy never would.

Most of them are college students, mortified to be working brain-dead jobs as ride tenders or game booth carnies. They wear horrible cheap T-shirts for uniforms, get abused by patrons and earn slave wages. As a result, they form bonds with each other that appear slack but are amazingly durable.

Mottola perfectly captures the way it feels to be in that transitional phase between childhood and adulthood, where you're old enough to drink at a bar but have to drive your mom's car to get there. In between semesters and living again under your parents' roof, your entire life is working, or hanging out with the people you work with.

James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a recent college grad who wants to be a journalist (good luck, kid). When the family takes a financial hit, he's forced to scrap his plans of spending the summer in Europe before he starts grad school. James keeps making the mistake of telling girls he's just met that he's a virgin, which is the best possible strategy for remaining one.

Amid the corndogs and rigged games of Adventureland, James immediately hits it off with Em (Kristen Stewart, so much livelier than in "Twilight"), a cool girl with some troubles at home.

She's also secretly fooling around with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the slightly older guy who repairs the park's broken-down rides. Connell drives a hot rod, carries around a guitar and is rumored to have once jammed with Lou Reed, and is basically regarded by the other park denizens as a small god.

So well-crystallized is this world created by Mottola that even the minor characters feel mapped out and three-dimensional. There's Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), who is lusted after by all the men, and she knows it, and yet she never actually sleeps with anybody, and seems fully in charge of her little corner of the world.

Joel (Martin Starr) is the homely nerd who wears coke-bottle glasses, smokes a pipe and seems to have a magnetic repulsion to joy. There's a slight hint that Joel secretly adores Em, but since the restrained Joel would never telegraph his feelings, neither does Mottola.

In terms of plot ... there really isn't much. The romance of James and Em is the main storyline, but even it seems to ebb and flow, much as a real summer romance might. Its lack of hurry only serves to make it feel more natural.

It's hard to even know what to call "Adventureland." It's surely not a comedy, although it's certainly funny, and not a drama, even though there's some important stuff going on amidst the cotton candy and '80s pop music. Forget trying to label it; just enjoy its unexpected charms.

3.5 stars out of four

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