Movie Review: Adventureland

Adventureland2009. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart. Directed by Greg Mottola.

Why do boys and girls in America have such a sad time together? (You can ask the Hold Steady, but I doubt it involves John Berryman.) I don’t think I’ll ever see a coming-of-age movie that explains why teenage love is misery. Maybe it’s not possible — I don’t know if I can lose myself in someone else’s story, like this very noble effort by writer-director Greg Mottola. The events in this movie mean a lot to him, and you just hope, as you begin to invest the time and attention to watching it, that it’s going to answer the universal question of Will Anyone Love Me So I Can Love Myself?

Jesse Eisenberg stars as James, an intellectually gifted college graduate who is staying busy for the summer and raising money for his grad-school future by taking the only job he can find, at the old-school amusement park. He’s just been dumped by a girl and has had his summer-in-Europe gift revoked by his nearly invisible parents. He meets a lot of new friends on the job, including Em (Kristen Stewart), whom he quickly falls for. Em has a complicated life compared to James — she hates her new stepmom and has been having an affair with maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who is married. Connell is also a fraud, with a gaggle of impressionable young co-workers to impress.

A lot of what happens in Adventureland happens in the park (the movie is set in the 1980s, but doesn’t go nuts with retro references) as James and Em flirt with each other, screw around with some crazy co-workers, hang out at well-behaved parties, and do the circling dance of distrust and accusation that most couples do when wondering if their love is being requited.

The performances of the leads probably save the movie. Eisenberg is very likeable as a geeky local kid, and even his unexpected luck with women is believable, given his charm and lack of competition. Kristen Stewart has this lovely face that always seems to have a crease of pain running across her brow — her character is unsure of everything in her life. Their scenes together are a mix of awkward chit chat and uncomfortable silences, and feel especially real.

They drift together, fight and break up, and the summer ends. The real conflict for Eisenberg is that his dream of an Ivy League grad school education (and its supposed guarantee of career success and fulfillment) has been stolen from him, and that is clumsily dealt with. The decision he makes when Adventureland closes for the year, and its consequences, are the heart of the story and turned Eisenberg’s character from a mumbly wanderer into a person that you hoped and believed would succeed.

I never related to the kids in The Breakfast Club with their distinct social roles, and as much as I liked the music of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, I couldn’t relate to all the drama. I liked the kids in Super Bad, with the lack of booze and sex driving them through the awful years of their lives, but they were far from real. I wonder how all of us made it through those years.

Young Americans make it so hard on each other. As the Hold Steady said, they just keep crushing each other with colossal expectations. Most of us have a story that would break anyone’s heart, but they are too many, and too personal to translate to the big screen.

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