In Theaters: Adventureland
Due in large part to the lobbying efforts of Judd Apatow, society has come to expect adolescent behavior from adults who should know better. Age 30 is fast becoming the new 20, and "perpetual student" is no longer an insult, it's a career track. Now that arrested development is in the water, it's time that the Coming of Age genre gets with the times. Adventureland is a mostly sincere step in that direction.
Adventureland unfolds in 1987, and instead of that era's classic sexually-inexperienced teenager, we are given James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a sexually-inexperienced recent college grad who probably studied the classics while earning his degree in Comp. Lit & Renaissance Studies. But while writer/director Greg Mottola and his production team amp up the nostalgia with an iPod's worth of period music staples (The Replacements, Falco, Crowded House), the problems of an underemployed college grad still feel very contemporary.
James hopes to travel to Europe with his graduation money and start grad school at Columbia in the fall. But those exotic plans fall away due to his father's sketchy employment situation, leaving James stranded in Pittsburgh. Adventureland, a rundown theme park, is the only employer willing to take someone with little "experience" (key concept of film related to basic plot action of film? Check.), and armed with a bag of skinny joints (as useful as Indy's whip or 007's tricked-out watch in the summer of '87), James starts working the midway.
Also toiling at the park is his old friend Frigo (Matt Bush), who punches James in the junk whenever possible. and Gogol-reading Joel (a typically captivating Martin Starr), the closest in intellect to our protagonist. Naturally, it is Em (Kristen Stewart), the long-haired girl with secrets, in whom James invests most of his interest. Summer lovin' happens fast for the multisyllabic virgin, but Em has other men in her life: her strange father (Josh Pais) and Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the big-talking handyman who fixes the rides but has a life (and a wife) built on various lies.
Connell becomes a mentor of sorts for James, and their scenes together find Eisenberg accessing some of the same pathways he used in 2002's Roger Dodger. Then he played a 16-year-old looking for his first piece, but even now that innocence remains present as he discusses his feelings for a woman that Connell is slowly destroying.
Unburdened by that massive Twilight weave (and a script requiring her to say things like: "Death is peaceful, easy. Life is harder."), Stewart proves that her new starpower is grounded in actual acting ability. Being beautiful and troubled is the basic requirement of an actress, and Adventureland would be about as substantial as day-old cotton candy without her range of emotions complementing Reynolds and Eisenberg's more restrained performance styles.
If I haven't mentioned jokes or funny set pieces or crazy characters who bring the belly laughs, it's not an oversight. Adventureland's humor occurs outside the James-Em-Connell love triangle. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig's the kooky park managers seem to occupy a different universe, perhaps that of Carl the Gardener in Caddyshack: softening the rougher edges of the less funny Danny Noonan thread. But unlike Bill Murray (or even Brian Doyle-Murray) in that summer romp, no one approaches the sublime, and even Hader chasing down a ruffian with a baseball bat feels out of place when we'd rather be watching the beautiful, tear-stained girl with an important decision to make.
There's an epilogue that may or may not be necessary depending on how you like your Hollywood endings, but the bittersweet aftertaste of Adventureland is not just from the choppy dénouement. It's also the last light of first kisses, kisses shared as night takes its dying breaths, when young adulthood resuscitates an aging teenager. RATING (out of 10): 7.5