They really shouldn’t call it coming of age. That simply suggests the passage or arrival of time. Instead, they should label it “the moment of transcendence”, the sequence or frame of opportunities when life clarifies itself in plan and purpose. In retrospect, we make the link to maturation because of the unusual perspective aging provides. But while it does infer growth and a movement away from youthful exuberance, it really is a clever combination of the two - each one finding their place in the personality pecking order. For James Brennan, the hero of Greg Mottola’s magnificent Adventureland, the Summer of 1987 was indeed that meaningful three months of Zen. It remains the moment when what he meant to the world finally matched what he believed about himself.
James always knew that the 12 weeks before graduate school meant Europe. Along with his college roommate, he planned on traveling the continent before heading off to Columbia for an advanced degree in journalism. But when his father’s secret drinking problem gets him demoted, James’ parents renege on their plan to support his trip. Instead, he is forced to return home and look for a job. Disheartened, James winds up working at a local Pittsburgh amusement park called Adventureland. While he would like to man one of the rides, supervisors Bobby and Paulette put him on games. There, he meets nerdy intellectual Joel, adult handyman Connell, racy ride operator Lisa P., and most importantly, the distant and distracting Em. It’s not long before James is spending all his time with the cool, compelling girl, their lives apparently paralleling each other. What our hero doesn’t know, however, is how complicated things really are - not only with Em, but with his own lost life as well.
Adventureland is a classic, a great film fashioned out of truths, consequences, and half-remembered conclusions. It’s a love letter to independence discovered and emotions stripped bare. It’s funny but not farcical, natural and organic without a hint of the whack job perversion that colored writer/director Greg Mottola’s previous film, Superbad. Indeed, audience failed to respond to the film when it was released in theaters because the geniuses behind the movie’s marketing kept repeating the Apatow angle over and over again. But unlike that updated teen sex romp, Adventureland is more like Mottola’s first film, the critically acclaimed effort from 1996, The Daytrippers. The humor here is not outrageous, peppered with every curse word and innuendo possible. Instead, this is the standard slice of life, carved with precision and purpose. The results surpass anything his previous canon could have suggested.
Indeed, the great thing about Mottola’s movie is how subtle and sly it is. This is not some broad burlesque with little bits of truth sprinkled within. Instead, it’s a wonderfully realistic portrait of mid-‘80s angst, of going nowhere relatively fast in a small suburban Pittsburgh town. In turn the laughs are generated directly from how authentic and recognizable it all is, not based around caricatures, clichés and classic songs. Granted, in Mottola’s Greed Decade design, music is very, very important. But instead of working in every ditzy dance and new wave pop track from the past, this filmmaker filters his sonic support through his characters. That’s why we get big, brilliant doses of The Replacements. It’s why Lou Reed runs ramshackle over tired takes like “Point of No Return” and “Obsession”. In fact, such a personal purview is how Mottola handles everything in Adventureland. He is so sure that his experiences circa 1987 were universal that they will translate across most audience memories - and he’s right.
At it’s core, this is a film about finding oneself, about digging beneath the surface scoured by parents, friends, teachers, television, film, music, mistakes, accomplishments, dreams, defeats, and more importantly, one’s own awareness. It’s about taking a chance, risking it all, and losing most of it in the process. It’s about rebuilding from the mix tape up, about recognizing your limits and striving to move beyond them. For many, Mottola may be trying to craft a calmer, gentler John Hughes charade, The Breakfast Club without the slapstick setpieces or sit down confessionals. But unlike the late great director who redefined the teen comedy, Adventureland is about being stuck and stunted long after you’ve graduated and gone to college. What many viewers fail to realize is that James and Em are headed to graduate school. They are in their early 20s and still stifled by families who make dumb, selfish decisions and a world that’s not quite ready for their prone and perplexed contributions.
In both Eisenberg and Stewart, Mottola finds the perfect insular companion pieces. She is all anger swallowed up in a desperate desire to be wanted. He’s a weak-willed wallflower who has never found the proper outlet for his well-educated shrug. In combination, they become the Zen reflection of each other, yin and yang muted of philosophical significance only to end up players in a game of “Who’s Life Sucks Worse?” Together, they give each other solace. Apart, the merely amplify each other’s misery. While Mottola may not be suggesting that James and Em are destined for a life as partners, he captures that post-adolescent ‘click’ between similarly stunted wanderers flawlessly. From an acting perspective, both rising stars give very special performances. Eisenberg may be channeling a Michael Cera type of deadpan, but there’s more in his looks of longing than in a dozen Superbads. And Stewart, currently trapped in the Twilight zone of hysteria, proves she is more than just a future Convention fixture with her turn as Em.
Mottola also makes the wise decision to surround his lovebirds with actual people instead of satiric comic pawns. Martin Starr is marvelous as Joel, uber-dorky, pipe in mouth, and fated for a life as a misunderstood, cynical loner. It’s a type we’ve seen before, but as with all of Adventureland, presented in a prescient manner. Similarly, Margarita Levieva’s Lisa P. is the iconic ‘easy’ girl, slut dance moves making all the boys (and a few of the men) hot and very bothered. Yet she too is hiding some undeniable pain, the product of a home life which fosters a softer, sweeter, more sensitive side. In some ways, this movie is about matching, about finding who fits and who doesn’t. Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig illustrate this concept wonderfully. As park managers Bobby and Paulette, they were clearly meant for each other, and are 1000 times better for it.
Oddly enough, the new Blu-ray release of this film fails to tap into much of said specialness. The commentary from Mottola and Eisenberg is barebones and genial, more about themselves than the film. Similarly, the promised “Unrated” content turns out to be deleted scenes that don’t have to pass MPAA muster to be included - thus the PR come-on. There’s a decent Making-of, and the ability to single out specific songs, but once again, Miramax treats this title like a gentle failure. Instead of increasing its profile, the format packaging offers a great picture and sound with only a smattering of substance.
Still, if the film itself is all that’s important Adventureland more than delivers. For a generation tired of the same pat answers and an array of meet-cute determinations about their meaning, Greg Mottola creates the ultimate expression of the truth. This is a movie that feels real, that projects certain fictional facets within a construct that comes from actual pain and interpersonal perception. If you missed it the first time around, word of mouth making this perceived indirect Superbad sequel into something less scatological, step right up and try your luck. You’ll almost certainly find something worth celebrating, even if the victories are small and oh so human. Maybe you’ll discover your own transcendent moment.