Thursday, October 27, 2016
Movies like Adventureland are rare. They see their characters lovingly without idealizing them. They see a place and time so truly that we forget we are watching a period piece. They remember what it felt like to be young and in love. Remembering the friends you wished would go away when you were trying to talk to a girl, the awkward silences you’d endure before you figured out how to really talk to women, the feeling of what it's like to be accepted by the one person you hoped would accept you, and the myriad of memorable people that may only come into your life during the course of one crazy summer. So, it’s a coming-of-age tale, a genre I’ve always loved. And technically there’s nothing new here, but it’s about as good of an example of the genre as there is.
It's 1987 and James (Jesse Eisenberg) is forced to get a summer job when his dad gets demoted at work and his parents aren't able to help him pay for his college graduation trip through Europe or pay for graduate school and an apartment in New York City. After being turned down by everyone because he has no job experience (despite his degree, “I’m not even qualified for manual labor” he complains), James gets a job at Adventureland, the local theme park. There he meets the oddball managers Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig), who put him to work in the games section of the park alongside Joel (Martin Starr) and Emily (Kristen Stewart), whom James quickly falls for. He also gets to be friends with the guitar playing maintenance guy Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who people say jammed with Lou Reed, one of James' heroes.
Adventureland is the most wonderfully realized, delicately crafted, and emotionally affecting movie about young people that I've ever seen. It captures a moment in time that didn't even exist in my life, yet I connect to it so deeply I almost can't explain it.
There's not a single moment in the movie that rings false to me, and so many moments that transcend the maligned "young adult/teen" genre. Of course, this movie is not about "teens," it's about people just out of college realizing that their studies in Comparative Literature or Russian and Slavic Languages don't mean much in the real world. It's also about those fragile feelings of first love, real friendship, jealousy, and taking the wrong advice because you don't know any better yet. More than anything really, it's the story of first love. But because everything is so carefully constructed, capturing life, the feeling of real life, it's about much more than that simple description might allude to. Sure, it's not documentary-esque real life, it's idealized and nostalgic, but in the best way possible.
Jesse Eisenberg is just so subtly good as James that I'm afraid people will underestimate him as an actor. He’s gone on to do work both acclaimed (like in The Social Network, which netted him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor) and not as well received (like his recent turn as Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman). Here in Adventureland, Eisenberg has the kind of effortless charm and real emotions that John Cusack used to bring to these kinds of young adult roles in the 1980s. He has a bit of Woody Allen in his performance as well, but never comes off like a caricature or even an imitation of either actor. He's his own person. Many people who can’t look past the surface have written this performance off as “oh, he’s just an awkward teen, it’s the Michael Cera role.” And that’s wrong. Eisenberg brings a lot of depth and nuance to his role if you’re willing to see it.
Another polarizing actor, Kristen Stewart, is here so beautifully fascinating and charming that you can't help but fall in love with her at least a little bit. She brings a certain delicate intelligence to her character that I'm not sure many actresses her age could pull off. She’s not quite the idealized manic pixie dream girl that many love interests are in these types of movies. She’s a young woman who has been hurt, made mistakes, but is a good person, funny, and someone who stands up for and protects the people she cares about. It’s not at all hard to see why James falls for her.
In fact, each supporting performance is really spot on, with Martin Starr in particular being worthy of mention as James' fellow game booth worker Joel. He sees himself and the world around him with a clarity that none of the other characters possess, giving James the kind of advice that he needs, rather than the kind he's been taking from Connell. And Ryan Reynolds as Connell is the type of work he needs to do more often as an actor. Reynolds is usually best in small doses, I find, and so his scene stealing turn here is perfect and probably the best work of his career. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are the only really unrealistic supporting characters, but both are so funny and work so well together that I don’t really care.
Director Greg Mottola's previous movie, Superbad, was one of the most realistic depictions of teenage mindset, life, and emotions that I've ever seen (barring the McLovin storyline, which while hilarious was also that movie’s equivalent of Hader and Wiig). At the time, I gave most of the credit for that to writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and stars Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. Adventureland makes me think that maybe a lot of that credit deserves to go to Mottola. He takes on writing duties this time, telling a semi-autobiographical story that he just flat out nails as director. The delicate narrative telling of this movie is really a wonder to behold. It’s episodic, but somehow Mottola makes it feel cohesive, as the emotions and even the comedy are all part of the whole tapestry of James and his summer at Adventureland.
Of course it’s a coming-of-age movie, but I still think it's a hard one to classify because everything in it works so well that it rises above those genre clichés. So yes it has comedy, drama, romance, awkwardness, friendship, punches to the crotch, and maybe a chase scene or two. But sometimes you watch a movie so good that you just sit in your seat and hope it knows how amazing it could be if it doesn't screw it up in the end. Adventureland is that kind of movie, and it never falters once.