I'm happy to report that I found Greg Mottola's Adventureland pretty much as smart and charming and wise—and, yes, funny—as the majority of its reviewers did. It's worth noting, however, that a huge subset of the reviewers who adored this movie—set in 1987 and concerning the career and romantic travails of James Brennan, a socially awkward, bookishly intellectual recent college student who's also a virgin—are white, male, and, um, bookish heterosexuals of a certain age. A lot of guys who, within mere minutes of meeting this character, written and lensed with acute perception and painful honesty by Mottola, and given authentic life down to every nerve ending by Jesse Eisenberg, were murmuring to themselves, "James Brennan, c'est moi."
Which points to a potentially alienating aspect of the picture, one that was best summed up for me by a white female film critic of my acquaintance, who, after the premiere screening of Zach Braff's Garden State at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2004, screeched in the lobby, to no one in particular, "If I ever have to sit through one of these coming-of-age movies again, I'm going to PUKE!!!!" We didn't have to ask her what she meant by "one of these" coming-of-age movies, because we all knew—the kind in which the sweet-but-depressed male is saved by the, you know, Manic Pixie Dream Girl who teaches him to love life again.
And there's one of the rubs about Adventureland; one of its many aspects that puts it a whole bunch of cuts above less considered, more studiedly "nice" fare—the character of Em, the fellow amusement-park worker James falls for and forms a sometimes rather tentative affinity with. While her stature and relatively infrequent smile evoke "pixie" somewhat, the character is hardly manic; indeed, actress Kristen Stewart, giving a remarkably calibrated performance, gives Em very sleepy eyes a fair amount of the time. (All the kids in this picture are really into pot, as who wouldn't be at such a summer job with no drug tests?) The last thing Em is out to do is "save" James, although she's intrigued by both his honesty and his virginal condition; she just wants a good guy to hang with. A good guy who maybe, not coincidentally, might be able to serve as an escape hatch from the screwed-up amorous situation she's already trapped in.
Sean Burns in the Philadelphia Weekly said the picture "at times feels like a John Hughes movie directed by Francois Truffaut," and as odd as that might sound, he's on to something. Mottola's frequent use of blackouts—a Truffaut touch Robert Benton also lifted for Kramer Vs. Kramer—is one example. Another is his treatment of Em and her storyline, which is subordinate to James' but is treated with as much scrupulousness. Mottola gives us just enough of Em's backstory to let the audience know her situation's a bad one, but never bends over backwards or try to rationalize how this essentially good and smart person has made at least a couple of fundamentally bad and dumb choices. Mottola will often end a scene of Em's home life by merely letting it hang, not giving us the fully-resolved blowouts that seem to be required in mainstream American character studies. As a result, what we don't hear being said has a peculiar resonance.
It's also nice how Mottola, like Truffaut's mentor Jean Renoir, allows all his characters their reasons, or at least their humanity; even Ryan Reynolds' full-of-it amusement park lothario has his sadly empathetic moments. One of the film's biggest laughs—and, likely, biggests points of identification for the "James Brennan, c'est moi" crowd (I know I cringed)—comes when James tries to drop a bon mot on the park's resident bombshell "Lisa P" (Margarita Levieva) and is rewarded with a vaguely annoyed "What?" But even as she grows into the engine that drives James backwards, Lisa P becomes ever more sympathetic. It's a neat trick, one I hope to see Mottola pulling off more often.
These character touches, and the varied grace notes dotting the film—I was particularly hit by some fervent, fireworks-lit Fourth-of-July necking, scored to Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over"—make Adventureland quite a bit more than "one of those" coming-of-age pictures. As for where your correspondent sits on the "James Brennan, c'est moi," well, I'd say somewhere between a 5 and a 7. For one thing, I started paying rent (at least intermittently) when I was 19. And by the time I was 21, I had learned that sharing one's enthusiasms with certain individuals of the opposite sex wasn't always likely to yield much of a return. I remember once when a slightly older woman I was dallying with noticed a copy of Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style on my bookshelf. The woman, an enthusiastic fan of the recently released Jane Fonda's Workout, asked, "Is this an instructional?"
"Sort of," I shrugged.