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This teen comedy is refreshingly poignant

POSTED: April 1, 2009 9:31 p.m.
/Miramax Films

Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Kristen Stewart are teenagers who come of age in the perfectly subdued "Adventureland."

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“Adventureland” is not what you expect. The publicity for this movie makes it look like a sequel to “Superbad,” with all the vulgarity and body jokes we expect from a Judd Apatow production.

But while Apatow’s influence is apparent, he had nothing to do with this movie.

It’s absolutely clear that while making “Superbad” for Apatow, director Greg Mottola was giving the boss what he wanted. Mottola obviously felt more freedom of expression this time out, because he molded “Adventureland” into a thoughtful, smart and personal film.

The characters and story are, admittedly, not a complete break from the young adult comedies dominating screens in recent years.

It’s 1987, and James (Jesse Eisenberg), an intelligent, romantic virgin, has just earned a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature with a minor in Renaissance studies. He has been accepted into Columbia University’s graduate program in journalism, and he has plans to travel Europe all summer with his best friend.

This bright future and dreamy summer come to a bitter end when James’ father (Jack Gilpin) and mother (Wendie Malick) tell him that dad has been demoted and they’re moving to Pittsburgh. The setting might be the ’80s, but this economic subtext strikes a major chord at the moment.

James is forced to work all summer at Adventureland, the worst low-rent amusement park imaginable. What he expects to be torturous and humiliating instead becomes a coming-of-age experience. He makes friends with similarly educated yet poor Joel (Martin Starr), falls in love with beautiful, volatile Em (Kristen Stewart), and learns to cope with his zany husband-and-wife bosses (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig).

James is sensitive, insecure, infinitely likeable. Michael Cera could have played the role, but in the hands of Eisenberg, James is less of a comedian. Eisenberg instead imbues the character with realistic familiarity.

Stewart is her usual charismatic, captivating self (despite an annoying compulsion to play with her hair).

Starr is the most underrated of all the Apatow troupe. He shines here as an intellectual stuck in a dead-end life, and it’s only a matter of time before he lands a breakthrough role like his pals Seth Rogen, Jason Segel or Jonah Hill.

“Adventureland” was not made for a teenage mentality. Those expecting crass penis jokes or chest hair waxing will be sorely disappointed. The tone is introspective and subdued.

Hader, whose role is much smaller than the movie’s trailers imply, is mostly a distraction.

We have to remember not only that Mottola’s “Superbad” captures the psyche of a sensitive young man living in a world of meatheads better than any other Apatow movie, but also that Mottola is no newcomer. His understated 1996 indie hit “Daytrippers” is at turns hilarious and heart-breaking, and that is the sensibility he brings to “Adventureland.”

Lou Reed dominates the soundtrack, which prompts a comparison. “Adventureland” is a lot like Reed’s music: the ideas and content aren’t always original and at times self-indulgent, but ultimately we overlook those qualities because the delivery and expression are so poignant and genuine that it all seems fresh.

“Adventureland” ends a long drought of comedies for young adults who are able to laugh and think at the same time.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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