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Josh Reviews Adventureland

Set in 1987, Adventureland takes place over the course of one summer in the life of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), just out of college, whose dreams of traveling Europe with his friends have been dashed by his family’s financial problems.  Seeking a summer job instead, Jesse quickly discovers that his degree in literature doesn’t really qualify him for any sort of employment back home in Pittsburgh.  Thus, he winds up working at Adventureland, a somewhat tired old local amusement park.

Jesse befriends Joel (Martin Starr, who, as with most of the talented alumni of Freaks and Geeks, I would happily watch in anything), an intellectual loner, and quickly becomes smitten with the mysterious Em (the terrific, beguiling Kristen Stewart).  The self-contained universe of Adventureland is fleshed out by a variety of other interesting, quirky characters: park owners Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), handsome park mechanic Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), Jesse’s not-as-funny-as-he-thinks-he-is childhood friend Frigo (Matt Bush), the flirty Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), and many others.

Taking place in the eighties, Adventureland is a “period piece,” but it never beats you over the head with obvious references.  Rather, the movie uses the setting to lend the story a sweetly nostalgic feel.  I love the care with which the movie explores the sub-culture of the summer staff experience at Adventureland, with all of its unique peculiarities.  I’ve never worked at an amusement park, but I certainly have spent many summers working at a summer camp.  And while the specifics of my summer camp jobs didn’t resemble in any way the specifics of working at Adventureland, I did really connect with the way the film captured the way in which these summer jobs can be transformative experiences for young people, and the way a short summer can be an epic of highs and lows and experiences of all kinds.  I have warm feelings for my summer camp experiences, and the film creates a similarly warm glow around Jesse’s experiences, even the painful ones.

Credit writer/director Greg Mottola (who also directed Superbad) with doing a terrific job in setting that tone.  The film is funny, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy.  However, the shifts from humor to drama never feel out-of-place.  Rather the film feels like a true-to-life picture of the ups and downs of a kid’s summer.  I never seem to get tired of a good coming-of-age story, and this is definitely a winner in that category.

The film only makes one teensy tiny misstep, in my mind.  I don’t want to spoil anything about the ending, but suffice it to say there’s a dramatic moment between two characters in the rain that is the only moment in the film that felt a bit “movie-fake” to me.  I think writers and directors just need to be forbidden, from now on, from having climactic moments where one character declares his/her feelings for the other in the rain.  It’s just a ridiculously over-done cliche, and rings very false to me.  ‘Nuff said.  (Credit the terrific Jesse Eisenberg & Kristen Stewart for saving the scene and keeping me in the moment.)

It was an interesting contrast to watch this film after seeing Observe and Report, a movie whose shifts from comedy to dark, dark drama felt much sharper to me.  While Observe and Report is probably the braver, more innovative film, in terms of my enjoyment I had a much better time watching Adventureland, and that is the film I most look forward to revisiting.

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