April 05, 2009

Adventureland

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart find love over water races and ring tossing in 'Adventureland'There are moments in our lives that are preserved with crystal clarity, such that when our present reality bumps into one of them an aching burst of emotion tears through us. We can go back to places, which may or may not have changed over the years, but we can't go back to the moments. With Adventureland, Greg Mottola recaptures a microcosm of American life in 1987 with all the intensity of the original experience. The promos for this film promise another Superbad, but the reality is something both deceptively simpler and more unembellished.

James Brennan is the well-to-do son of well-to-do parents. After graduating from Oberlin with a liberal arts degree, he is excited to embark across Europe with his well-to-do friends before heading to Columbia for grad school in the fall. But fate intervenes: his father has been transferred to a different department at a much lower pay scale. Suddenly Europe is off the table, and Columbia looks threatened unless he can raise some cash. For the first time, he's going to have to work.

Possessing no employment history and unqualified for even manual labor, the summer job picture looks bleak. He finally turns to his immature neighbor for a job operating the midway games at the local low-rent amusement park.

Adventureland has a certain internal rhythm native to dead end jobs like it. Everybody with someplace better to be is alread gone, so the teens and twentysomethings are left marking time with nobody left but each other. A couple days in, NYU undergraduate Em slips in from the neighboring booth to save James from an altercation with public. Under the circumstances, that's all it takes for her to become an increasingly important part of his world. James, Em and everybody else have plenty of time to get to know each other from trash duty in the morning to conversations in the parking lot (sometimes enhanced with a little well-to-do pot) as the garish lights flicker out.

Like most young on-screen couples, James and Em face their share of complications. But in this case none of those complications feel even the slightest bit artifical. Everything that happens in this movie not only does happen, but has happened many times before. A party in this case is a dozen co-workers hanging out in an empty house, not the bash of the century. Late night drives with mixed tapes filling the silence chart out James and Em's growing closeness. A booth in a dive bar gets under the neon glow of a beer sign is the setting of their first extended conversation.

The dynamic between James and Em works because Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are extraordinarily gifted at communicating a lot without saying anything. Em initially seems quite forward, but the closer James gets the more she seems to be retreating. Ever-serious James's has an innocence that she longs for. Moments when James's intellectual aspirations are undercut by a certain base horniness provide some of the movie's best laughs. Eisenberg offsets that awkwardness with a sturdy even-headness that earns the respect of those around him. It's an essential quality that separates him from the goofier and more lovable Michael Cera.

The supporting cast is composed of the type of people we all know. The comedic moments depend on the memories they stir up as much as the delivery. I've had these conversations, been around these people. As the park owner, Bill Hader completes his takeover of Dan Akroyd's old niche. Ryan Reynolds is the biggest surprise, trading his smarmy onscreen persona for an understated, largely dramatic performance weighted with long-settled sadness over a life that didn't quite turn out as planned.

At key moments James and Em hurt each other deeply. Remarkably, they respond by empathizing with their transgressor. After the immediate emotional reaction, they march ahead with eyes a little more open. Who happens to them after the credits roll is left to our imaginations. But one thing is for sure: the summer they shared together is a memory they'll be bumping into for the rest of their lives.(***½)