Bastards of Young
Gen X starts committing Baby Boomer nostalgia for a simpler time
From the Replacements playing during the opening credits to the tasteful choice of the acoustic version of the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Taste of Cindy" and instrumental soundtrack numbers by Yo La Tengo, writer/director Greg Mottola's Adventureland is a mash note to a 1980s era of not-quite-adulthood. Sure, Ronald Reagan may be in the White House, but the country is awash in music that chafes at the bit of a prouder, stronger, and better morning in America, when young allegiances were sown through a shared love or hate of a band. It was a time when a young man could begin to fall for a young woman because she plays Hüsker Dü's "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" in her car's cassette deck or bond with a fellow post-graduation pal via a shared sneer at Rush. Some of you remember that era--when making a girl a mixtape of your favorite bummer songs was a sign of affection and considering graduate school for journalism sounded like a wise career path.
Yes, that's right: Adventureland is a winsome movie of youth remembered by a member of Generation X. The fortysomething Mottola has scored his coming-of-age tale with signposts from the salad years of America's musical underground, a time before descriptors such as "college rock" and "indie" became mere synonyms for "middle-class, white, and boring." And, sadly, it's just as bittersweet and nostalgic as those movies of Baby Boomer nostalgia for lost youth--Fandango, Stand by Me, Peggy Sue Got Married, Back to the Future, Losing It, etc.
Fortunately, Adventureland is inoffensively romantic about its time period and refreshingly gimlet eyed. Bookish, neurotic James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college in the spring of 1987 and is excited about his summer tour of Europe with a friend before headed to journalism graduate school when his parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) inform him that because of his father's recent work problems, they not only don't have the money to give him for his trip, but that he'll need to come home to Pittsburgh over the summer and work to be able to pull off grad school. Dreams unfulfilled and graduating unskilled, James takes the only job he can get: as a low-level midway games employee at the titular amusement park.
Eisenberg brings the skittish energy, overworking intelligence, and sexual anxiety to James that has powered his performances in Roger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale, and why he hasn't appeared in a Woody Allen picture yet is anybody's guess. James is resigned to his summer's fate, with a fall move to New York his reward for saving, and he finds an ally in self-loathing in fellow games grunt Joel (Martin Starr, solid as always). Joel--a Slavic Languages and Russian Literature major, which he deadpans prepares him for a future career as a hot dog vendor or cab driver--and James bond over shared interests in affordable beer and the opposite sex.
It's fellow park employee Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart), though, that really wakes James from his boring summer. She's the tomboyish but unconventionally attractive young woman with the Hüsker Dü tape and the car, who James gives his bummer mixtape to, and who actually listens to his future plans. Life isn't all peachy for this young woman, whose modestly well-heeled father married a woman Em can't stand after her mother's death, and Stewart wisely underplays Em's internal sadness and frustrations. But it takes James the entire movie to see beyond her nice home and easy-going manner to what might be going on inside her head.
That Mottola is at all interested in his flawed character's interior life and living conditions is Adventureland's best asset. His script makes room for typically overlooked American issues--such as the very real class divisions in superficially homogenous suburbs--while downplaying what too frequently gets turned into melodrama, such as intra-family conflict. Those subtle touches put Adventureland in the scarce company of impressively observed 1980s-set dramas--such as Susan Skoog's 1998 Whatever--that take shopworn plots and infuse them with lived-in details.
Adventureland is Mottola's follow-up to the even more conventional coming-of-age comedy Superbad, and his more mature and better new movie does include a few concessions to broad comedy--a pre-college friend of James who favors sarcastic T-shirts and considers surprise punching James in the balls the height of comedy, while Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader appear as the park's managers and do that (one) thing they can do. Better is Ryan Reynolds' supporting turn as the older park handyman Mike Connell, a musician who claims to have once jammed with Lou Reed and who becomes a relationship mentor to James. Long sentenced to sophomoric comedies, Reynolds finally gets a chance to turn his generic handsomeness and charm into a polished leer and conniving smarminess.