NZIFF 2009: Adventureland

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Review by Hugh Lilly

Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is not your typical romantic comedy. It’s also nothing like his previous film, Superbad. Where that film revelled in juvenile hijinks and high-school pranks, Adventureland is a much more accomplished, mature story; a tender coming-of-age tale set in the summer of 1987.

Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, the forthcoming Kill Your Darlings) plays James, a recent college graduate en route to NYC to study Journalism at Columbia grad school. After he finds himself unable to afford a vacation to Europe after graduation, he gets a job at the titular amusement park, where he falls for a girl named Em and tries to fit in with the misfit group of fellow Adventureland denizens.

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An amusing cast of characters exists almost in their own little world at Adventureland. The couple in charge is played brilliantly by Mottola regulars and SNL stars Bill Hader—sporting a funky moustache—and the ever-quirky Kristen Wiig.

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Martin Starr (TV’s short-lived but brilliant Freaks and Geeks) plays Joel, a bespectacled philosopher-in-training lumped with a crappy summer job just like everyone else. Ryan Reynolds (Just Friends, TV’s Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place) plays Connell, the park’s maintenance guy with a penchant for telling people an anecdote about how he once jammed with Lou Reed.

Kristen Stewart (Undertow, next year’s Joan Jett biopic The Runaways) as James’ love interest Em is attractive in a sort of awkward, perpetually-hungover kinda way, and although she isn’t exactly the greatest actress of her generation—she mumbles her way through most every line in the film—her starry-eyed, pot-induced nonchalance fits the character well.

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The film’s soundtrack is one of its highlights. Incidental music is by Yo La Tengo, and The Velvet Underground features prominently: Em wears Lou Reed t-shirts and has a Transformer poster on her wall, and “Pale Blue Eyes” is used, poignantly, not once but twice.

Although the rest of the music ranges from the enjoyably cheesy (Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days”; “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake; “Rock Me Amadeus,” the latter of which issues forth ceaselessly from the theme park’s speakers) to the tender and unexpected (Big Star’s “I’m in Love with a Girl”, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House) none of it ever seems clichéd or hackneyed.

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That it is true to its setting—it feels as much like the ’80s as did Donnie Darko—and features a cross-section of emerging actors and established comedians, and that they are cast as characters their own age (as opposed to squeezing into high school caricatures) makes the film all the more enjoyable.

As a more grown-up Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Adventureland is a refreshingly honest take on John Hughes’ style of romantic comedy that never resorts to the sorts of corny jokes and derivative situations that audiences have been conditioned to expect by mainstream filmmakers. Be sure to stay through the credits for an hilarious fake TV ad for the theme park.

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