There has not been a more horribly mismarketed film this year than writer-director Greg Mottola's tender bildungsroman, Adventureland. Distributed by Miramax Films, the company apparently saw Mottola's last directorial outing, Superbad, and the presence of SNL standouts Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as an opportunity to jump on the Apatovian bandwagon, so the trailers and TV spots for an affecting, emotionally naked coming-of-age tale cast the film as a moderately funny romp of drugs, sex and one- liners instead.
That couldn't be further from the truth. Working from an autobiographical snippet of his youth, Mottola presents James Brennan (the fantastic Jesse Eisenberg, who comes off like Michael Cera with a heart), a grad-school wannabe whose parents fall on hard times, leaving his European backpacking trip and advanced studies on hold, at least for the summer. In need of tuition money and armed with a bag of joints, a car and his father's hidden liquor stash, Brennan takes a job at Adventureland, a run-down carnival of broken dreams and stalled maturity.
He's tasked with manning the 'gamesâ?� area, a sucker's playpen of rigged skill challenges like water-gun horse races and mannequin top-hat shoots. Brennan's informed by management (Hader and Wiig) that he's a 'gamesâ?� person, which he discovers is more of an insult than it seems at first. Whereas the rides are operated by the outgoing cool kids, the games area is a no-man's-land of stoners and dorks, which is fine by them.
It's here that Brennan meets the damaged but heart-stealing Em (Twilight's Kristen Stewart, at her most beautiful). Em is the kind of trouble grad students like Brennan and life-weary losers (a subtly brilliant Ryan Reynolds as the park's maintenance man) alike can fall in love with. Her mother recently passed away, and in addition to her guilt over that, she tacks on plenty more for good measure. But she's also smart, funny and completely aware of how absurd her station in life has become.
In fact, all the characters in Adventureland are self-aware to some extent, for better or worse. When the normally put-together Brennan starts to slip into the bad habits of his workplace associates, his mother calls his behavior exactly what it is: regression. Brennan missed his opportunity to move forward, spent the summer in idle and is starting to slide backward. In another instance of smart writing, the movie begins with an American Pie-esque scene of a keg party at which Brennan's friends berate him for his virginity. But never does Brennan waver from his simple (and morally unburdened) mantra that he hasn't met the right girl. Mottola recognizes the teen-comedy sand trap and navigates it with a Tiger Woods'like elegance.
Adventureland is one of the best films of the year because it sticks by its own heart. Mottola sets his film in 1987, but doesn't play the period for excessive nostalgia. Lou Reed's 'Satellite of Loveâ?� is a plot point, but it's not thrown in simply for credibility, a la the name-dropping soundtrack of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. The film gives us a summer-love romance, but it's real, consequential and believable ' so much so that these characters linger in your heart long after the movie's over, just like the girl you fell in love with that summer long ago.