Every so often a movie comes along that completely blows away every expectation that you could have had for it. And despite the fact that many of the trailers make it out to be a run of the mill goofy summer job comedy, "Adventureland" has so much heart and realism to it that I'm still thinking about it.
James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college in Pennsylvania during 1987 and is planning on pursuing a postgraduate degree at Columbia in New York after a summer traveling through Europe. Unfortunately, the initial plan involving his parents helping him along on this journey had been scrapped after his father gets demoted and they no longer have the financial means to support this. This leads to James getting a job at the summer carnival "Adventureland" where he plans to save up money to afford a place in New York in the fall. It is here that he meets an incredible cast of characters, the most important of whom is Em Lewin (Kristin Stewart) who, despite seeming like she walks around perennially stoned in real life, is incredibly fantastic and alluring here, faults and all.
What is most surprising about this movie is how at the core, "Adventureland" is not really about the comedy. Sure, the movie is hilarious and there are plenty of laughs to be had from start to finish, but every laugh is earned. Even the cheap kicked-in-the-nuts gags are realistic because everyone knows a guy like that, a guy who is just so completely immature that only these childish moments give him entertainment. Even Ryan Reynolds, who normally is king of over the top, turns in a subtle performance as adulterous musician Mike Connell.
Every character has flaws and makes dumb mistakes, mistakes that every day people make. Whether it be trusting someone you shouldn't with a huge secret or knowing that you're about to make a mistake and you do it anyway, these are things that happen to real people and none of it comes across as forced. Writer/Director Greg Motolla (who directed "Superbad") places every character in such a specific position that the audience can truly feel for them. Some of the decisions are misguided or outright wrong, but you never feel as if the characters who make even the worst decisions are bad people.
Other films would have taken the fact James is a virgin in his early 20s and hammered that home, making the loss of his virginity the driving focus of the movie, but it's not. His virginity is just one element of his character. Sure, that's a background focus of his, and he still is a male, but it never overwhelms the plot. In fact, it only becomes an issue when he himself brings it up, showing that many of the things we think are holding us back are just parts of who we are, things that should be neither celebrated nor condemned. Even the wackier characters such as managers Bobby and Paulette (SNL's Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) are handled in a very regular way.
There's also more story than what's just on the surface. Peripheral characters too have their own life issues that are only alluded to but never really explored, yet they don't have to be. They appear to exist to provide our main characters with a more fully realized back story.
The soundtrack is also fantastic, with many excellent songs from the 1980s, most of which are poignant and not used for kitsch. All too often 80s movies focus on the over-the-top outfits and tacky songs, but those were just two elements of that era. This movie never takes that route and in fact can't think of one self-referential 80s joke that was made.
If there's one complaint to be had is that the pacing is a little odd near the beginning of the movie before it settles into a very natural progression. Towards the start, I could really feel the scene changes and this was slightly jarring. While I don't feel that any significant differences were made between the start and finish, I was brought fully into the characters' world and each step towards that end became more natural.
This is a movie about growing up, changing, and just dealing with life and the unexpected things it throws at you. Sometimes it's awesome, sometimes it sucks, but that's just the way life is. In the end, "Adventureland", despite its reality as a hilarious film in its own right, is an incredibly nuanced movie that deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible. A completely heartfelt surprise.