The danger in raving about a relatively quiet gem like "Adventureland" is creating unrealistically high expectations.
Ah, screw that. I loved this film.
The TV ads for "Adventureland" play up the wacky slapstick bits, the crotch-kicks, the theme-park hijinks and the fact that it's written and directed by Greg Mottola, who helmed "Superbad." But this film is much better than the sum of its trailer parts. It's actually a sweet, smart and subtle coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1987, a pre-Twitter/text/My Space time when if you wanted to talk to a girl that lived at home, you'd actually have to call her house and ask her mother if she was home.
Jesse Eisenberg ("The Squid and the Whale," "Roger Dodger"), a talented but sometimes overly mannered young actor, gives his most comfortable and authentic performance as James, a college grad whose dreams of a summer in Europe and graduate school at Columbia are squashed by his alcoholic father's financial woes. His B.A. in comparative literature means he's "not even qualified for manual labor," so James takes the only job he can get----working at a sorry excuse for a theme park. This is one of those places where half the games are rigged, and even if you win, your prize is a hideous, oversized stuffed animal. Whoop. Eee.
On the job, James encounters a seemingly stock supply of summer-movie characters: the older Lothario (Ryan Reynolds), the spunky love interest (Kristen Stewart); the sexpot; the wisecracking best friend; the square and slightly weird adults who run the place. (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play the grown-ups. A., that's two Kristens in one movie. B., Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig deserve a film of their own. They're flat-out effin' funny.)
In each case, there's more to the character than we expect. At its heart, "Adventureland" is a love story, but a much more complicated and believable love story than we usually see in comedies of this sort. Stewart's Em has a nightmare home life---but she's an active contributor to that nightmare. (In one scene, she's utterly cruel to her stepmother, who is not a lovely person but doesn't deserve such harsh treatment.) She's also involved with someone else, and even that affair takes a couple of turns you might not expect. And while James is a good kid, he has his moments of weakness and betrayal, and at one point is just mean to someone who has put her heart in his hands.
Yes, the kids in "Adventureland" spend a lot of time shooting beers, smoking pot, talking about sex and getting into trouble, and it's usually played for laughs. James is sorta-friends with a neighborhood dork whose main goal in life seems to be punching James in the crotch. But thanks to Mottola's ambitious script and sure-handed direction, even the broad humor here feels like something that could have happened at a theme park in Pennsylvania in the mid-1980s. Mostly, "Adventureland" is a heartfelt, slightly melancholy slice of life. You enjoy spending time with these young adults and you wonder how they're doing now.