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Adventureland

Adventureland

Rated R, 108 min. Directed by Greg Mottola. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Ryan Reynolds, Margarita Levieva, Jack Gilpin, Wendie Malick, Josh Pais.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 3, 2009

Amazingly, Adventureland is only the third feature film on talented director Mottola’s résumé. In the intervening years since 1996 – when he debuted as a writer-director with Daytrippers, a comic gem of family frustration and unity – Mottola completed an array of TV assignments, many of them for the new century’s rising comedy kingpin, Judd Apatow. It would still be years before his work on Apatow’s Undeclared landed Mottola in position to direct 2007’s megalaugher Superbad, which was produced by Apatow and scripted by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Now back as a writer and director, Mottola delivers a movie that is closer in comedic spirit to the sweet and soulful Daytrippers than to the rad and raunchy Superbad, although all three films share an affinity for single compound-word titles. In Adventureland, Mottola’s comic facility is on display: More than delivering assured punch lines, the filmmaker sustains the lighthearted atmosphere through steady character development, studious period detail, and narrative integrity. It’s a story about the summer that changed a young man’s life, the type that’s both been overtold yet is still full of potential. For James Brennan (Eisenberg, best known as the older brother in The Squid and the Whale), the summer begins when his plans for a trip to Europe between the end of college and the start of graduate school are scuttled when his parents’ economic shortfall forces him to return home to Pennsylvania and take a job to save money for the start of the fall semester. Specializing in Renaissance studies, James jokes that unless somebody needs a fresco painted, there’s no work out there for which he’s qualified. Despairing of his prospects, he accepts a job at the semidilapidated local amusement park of the film title. Adventureland is set in the summer of 1987, but rather than giving the film a dated feel, the period placement automatically makes Adventureland a kindred spirit to such Eighties teen-on-the-verge-of-adulthood comedies as Risky Business and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Plus, placing the film in the past may also allow the audience for this R-rated film to more easily relate the story to the crummy work experiences of its own youth. You also get the sense that you’re in good hands as the Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now” plays over the opening credits and Eighties-appropriate music plays on the soundtrack (the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, the annoying loop of “Rock Me Amadeus” that plays nonstop at the amusement park, and additional music contributions from Yo La Tengo). The plentiful music references become part of the plot as they create connections that bind (or distance) the characters to (or from) one another. The supporting characters are all given their due (among them Starr as the amusement park’s gloomy Gogol scholar, Hader and Wiig as the daffy couple who manage the park, and Reynolds as the older ride repairman who gets girls with his claim to having once jammed with Lou Reed), while James’ primary focus turns to the troubled Em (Stewart, who filmed this before her Twilight superstardom). Adventureland is a confident return to the kind of teen comedy that’s funny without being raunchy, youthful without being juvenile, and reflective without hitting you over the head with anything heavier than an amusement-park Whac-a-Mole mallet. (See "Lucky Starr," April 3, for an interview with Martin Starr.)
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