April 2, 2009

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Adventureland (R)
Like a bug to a windshield, a college grad is introduced to real life in Adventureland, a sweet, funny, downbeat The Graduate for our lowered-expectations age.

On the other hand, recession or no, when you go from the “you can do anything!” environment of college to the “your cubicle is by the copier” environment of actual life, there’s always a little right-sizing of expectations.

James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), an English major leaving the academic sanctuary in 1987, has his life immediately reality-checked when, at the dinner celebrating his graduation, his parents (a booze-soaked dad played by Jack Gilpin and a perpetually aggravated mom played by Wendie Malick) tell him that Dad’s been demoted, so no more summer trip to Europe for James. (This is the day after the virgin James is dumped by his girlfriend, losing his most likely opportunity to score.) And, James, who wants to be a travelogue journalist (his description of which is delightfully naïve) might have to rethink next year’s grad school plans at Columbia University as well, that is unless he can pay for it himself. The wealthier friend with whom he’d planned to go to Europe tells him not to worry about New York City, that James can room with him for a while, and he gives him a bag of joints to help James ease the pain of a summer at home.

James quickly finds that familiarity with the literary canon does not help with, say, landing a construction job. He soon realizes that his only real hope for employment is by prevailing on his childhood friend Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush) — who punctuates their every encounter with a merrily delivered punch to James’ nuts — to get him a job at Adventureland, a local down-on-its-heels amusement park. Here James, who is stuck running one of many fixed midway games, meets park managers Bobby (Bill Hader) and his dazed-seeming significant other, Paulette (Kristen Wiig); Joel (Martin Starr), a fellow smarty-pants who says his Russian Literature major makes him eligible for careers in taxi driveing or marijuana delivery; Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the park hottie; Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the aging pick-up artist, and Em (Kristen Stewart), a thinky girl with whom James rather quickly falls in crush.

But, like any workplace where the employees have more hormones than career motivation, it’s a Melrose Place of friendships, betrayals, hook-ups and histories even before James and his popularity-fostering bag of pot show up.

Adventureland is another one of these comedies that is not of Judd Apatow but explores a part of the Apatowian universe, namely the geek adrift. James is a more straight-laced version of Seth Rogen’s Knocked Up character, a more upwardly mobile version of Steve Carell’s character in The 40 Year Old Virgin. He shares some of the same mannerisms as Michael Cera’s character from Arrested Development — not an Apatow property but Arrested Development shares this movie’s writer and director, Greg Mottola (who has directing credits for Arrested Development), with the TV show Undeclared, which was an Apatow project. And Mottola was also director on Superbad, another comedy in which guys at a life crossroads find themselves concerned with the future, with their friendships and with, well, getting laid. Unlike the Apatowier projects, this movie is a little less concerned with male friendships than with James and eventually Em’s inner life and their relationship. The result is a quieter film, one without as many big laughs but with plenty of humor — much of it, of course, dependent on the “better them than us” awkwardness of this kind of movie — that carries through. While I love the big, dirty, goofy humor of an Apatow movie, I also love how this movie creates dimension even in characters with smaller parts and in characters who happen to be female, a group that tends to get short shrift in Apatow films.

I like this movie for its nerd-finding-his-way and life-after-college themes — both classics when they’re done right, as they are here. Like The Graduate, Adventureland feels both of its time and sort of timeless, which means that a baby boomer turning 55 now (happy birthday, Dad) will feel the same kind of nostagia that I, a 30something, do when I watch this, even though it isn’t set in either of our immediately-post-college years. (I guess my “here’s life” movie is Reality Bites, which, unlike Adventureland, feels self-conscious and dated by comparison.) And by turning back the clock to specifically to 1987, the movie gets to put its characters in a climate of increasing economic funk not unfamiliar to college graduates this spring. And it gives the movie an excuse for lining up a completely wonderful late 1980s college-radio-type soundtrack (studded with the occasional top 40 gem like “Rock Me Amadeus,” used here to wonderfully torturing effect). Like just about everything else about Adentureland, the soundtrack charms you even when it’s smirking. A-

Rated R for language, drug use and sexual references. Written and directed by Greg Mottola, Adventureland is an hour and 46 minutes long and will open in wide release on Friday, April 3. The film is distributed by Miramax.