Right around the moment in Adventureland that desperately awkward James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) and fellow tortured soul Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart) go for a quiet drive in Em’s car, the cassette deck blaring Hüsker Dü’s “Don’t Want to Know If You’re Lonely” into the suburban night, it becomes clear who exactly this film is targeted at. Yes, it’s another moody evocation of not-so-great times past for those lovesick children of the 1980s who are closing in on middle age.
It’s a peculiar form of nostalgia, born out of little more than an aching memory of post-adolescent longing and confusion, that fraught period that seemed so hopeless at the time and yet can be burnished by hindsight into a sort of bruised Avalon. The jobs might have sucked and that girl or that boy was destined to smash your heart in two, but at least one was young.
And the music was great. Writer/director Greg Mottola could be accused of directing by soundtrack in Adventureland, but what does it really matter when The Replacements get deployed with as much soul-stirring precision as they are here?
There’s more to the film than mood, though at times it hardly matters. Mottola wrote a thin reed of a plot, following James during a post-graduate summer when, instead of backpacking around Europe with his rich buddy, he’s stuck back home, working at a crap amusement park in suburban Pittsburgh to save up money for graduate school. The girl, Em, is destined to steal his heart in the worst way. Meanwhile, James’ either over- or extremely-undereducated co-workers serve as woeful warnings about what a future without graduate school might hold.
The story that Mottola’s crafted contains more battered elements of the drifting indie romantic comedy than should normally be allowed: the bookish and gawky protagonist, the soulful girl with a past, one crazy summer after which nothing would ever be the same, and even a passionate declaration made in the midst of a thundering downpour.
Mottola’s lengthy list of potential sins here also include Apatow-friendly Saturday Night Live cast members (Bill Hader, Kristin Wiig) in supporting roles and a comic relief bit player whose claim to screen time is a predilection for thwacking other guys in the crotch. His screenplay also drags out revealing a particularly obvious “secret” of Em’s long past the point at which even the dullest viewer will have cottoned on to it.
But instead of some rote piece of manufacture, tricked out with smart casting and a demographically-smart soundtrack, Adventureland turns out to be something approaching magical. Maybe it was the spell of those twinkling amusement-park rides against the soft summer dusk, or the languorous ease with which James slips into the summer-job rhythm of low expectations and even lower amounts of effort. The gorgeous usage of Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” — utilized during another soul-stirring nighttime drive, Mottola understanding the centrality to American youth of aimless driving and music like few other artists — certainly helps clinch it.
(It also deserves mentioning that Mottola wisely bucks the recent trend of writing and casting characters in their teens and early-twenties as though they were simply adults with different slang and wardrobes than their parents; by simply looking and sounding their age, his performers come off as impressively authentic.)
A loping comedy of displacement that snaps off dozens of easy laughs without breaking a sweat, Adventureland transcends the indie comedy trap by dint of not being content merely to capture its milieu but to animate it. Another filmmaker might have turned this same story into something like last year’s infinitely disappointing Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist; a film that got all the cultural signifiers right but lost its soul along the way. Adventureland uses its post-punk soundtrack (clashing against the pounding and disco-esque New Wave playing at the awful nightclub they occasionally frequent) and literary references to pinpoint its characters, but it doesn’t let those things fence them in. Yes, James is impressed by Em’s music collection, but it’s her fiercely burning eyes and the way she takes down a co-worker for making an anti-Semitic comment that makes him fall ridiculously in love. She could have loved “Rock Me Amadeus” (playing on infinite loop in Adventureland) and there still would have been sparks. So while Mottola might have created one of the most spot-on soundtracks for depressive survivors of the mid’80s, he’s not substituting music for character, ala Crowe and Tarantino.
Because of this ear for time and place, Adventureland is certainly a more limited creature, in terms of audience reach, than Mottola’s faster, raunchier, and more generalized, but quite similar suburban comedy Superbad. All that the former film required for somebody to love it was their having been, at some point in their life, a teenager. Whereas this newer (and seemingly much more personal) creation is an entirely different thing. Adventureland might not be quite as funny as Superbad in the end (not much has been, the last few years), but it’s a richer and more resonant film in the long run.