One of the biggest movies of this very lackluster late-summer movie-going weekend is American Ultra, the hyper-violent stoner action movie starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. Full review to come later this week, but here’s your spoiler: Not great! And yet, your film editor is thankful for the film’s release, because it gave me an excuse to advocate for a film that’s actually worth your time — Eisenberg and Stewart’s first onscreen pairing, the wildly underrated Greg Mottola coming-of-age comedy/drama Adventureland.
When it was released in the spring of 2009, Adventureland looked like a can’t-miss proposition. Eisenberg was on the rise, as was co-star Ryan Reynolds; supporting players Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig would deliver the Saturday Night Live crowd; Martin Starr was in there for the Freaks & Geeks fans; and it was Stewart’s first film after the release of a little something called Twilight. On top of that, writer/director Mottola’s previous picture was Superbad, another R-rated coming-of-age comedy that made a mint two years previous. Adventureland (a better film than Superbad, for what it’s worth) should’ve been a hit. Adventureland wasn’t a hit, and I’m still not sure why.
The best explanation I’ve got is timing — that its April release was simply a bad bet, as it’s a movie with summer in its bones. (It was one of the final releases of the Weinstein-less Miramax, a floundering organization that may’ve just figured it didn’t have the muscle to compete in summer.) It’s the story of college-age intellectual James (Eisenberg, obviously), unexpectedly left without the promised parental endowments for a summer trip to Europe and housing in the fall, forced to take a summer job at a third-tier amusement park. The result is a film so tuned in to the pre-collegiate experience — a film that remembers so clearly the experiences of a) working a terrible summer job, b) falling in love for the first time, c) being terrible to the person you’re in love with, and d) being young in the late ‘80s — that scenes which play as comedy to some audiences will land as harrowing tragedy to others.
Early on, James’ existence is best personified by the childhood “friend” who never misses an opportunity to punch him, as hard as possible, squarely in the balls. But 13 minutes in, he spots Em (Stewart) eyeing him sideways from across the midway, and he’s a goner. By the end of day two, he’s already drinking and smoking with his co-workers; Mottola totally gets how, when you’re a teenager, your work friends pretty much become your real friends immediately — mostly because you’re just there all the damn time. And when you develop a crush on one of them, your shitty part-time job becomes a thing you can’t wait to do; Mottola remembers that too. And he puts across, with just a few glances and whispers, the way all that warmth and camaraderie can turn sour when work friends start to gossip, as they always do.
His script is filled with little touches that ring too true for pure fiction: the ins and outs of how they rip people off, the way two cuties dominate the dance floor at an after-work gathering with little routines we saw them choreographing at work, the way one of them is always called “Lisa P,” with no explanation needed, because everyone’s worked or gone to school where someone got that name because there was another Lisa, and even though that Lisa’s not there anymore, the other one will just always be “Lisa P.” And the period flourishes aren’t overwhelming — this isn’t The Wedding Singer — but they ring true (yes, “Rock Me Amadeus” was an unforgivable earworm, and yes, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” was a great make-out song).
However, Mottola is even wiser about his characters. Reynolds has an interesting supporting turn as Connell, the slightly older rock star of the staff — almost literally, as he plays in a bar band and has a perhaps-apocryphal story about the time he jammed with Lou Reed. He’s also stuck in this job and this town, a married guy who screws around with the teenager girls he works with, and though Reynolds gets laughs, his line readings are suffused with the melancholy of a cool dude who missed the boat, and knows it.
Eisenberg has made a specialty of the kind of smart but smug kid he plays here; when the film was released, he’d made his biggest impression in The Squid and the Whale, and this could be that character, a few years older and not much wiser. At a key point in his budding relationship with Em, Lisa P asks James out (“I wouldn’t mind going out with a nice guy for a change”), and he knows he’s getting serious with Em, and that Lisa P’s no match for her intellectually — but she’s super-cute, so he accepts, and tells all his guy friends at the park, and then has the stones to ask her to keep it a secret. Yet when he finally comes clean to Em, of his own volition, she’s racked with guilt; she’s been Connell’s girl on the side for a while, and can’t do it anymore, to herself or to James.
The complications of these little dramas finally come to a head in a fierce argument on the street outside Connell’s mom’s house (where he takes Em for their encounters); James and Em go after each other with the kind of venom that you can only muster up when you really care about someone, and have been really hurt by them. The dialogue isn’t impeccably crafted or witty (sample line: “You’re not a fuckin’ idiot, I’m a fuckin’ idiot”), but it rings true, keen to the way people actually fumble and accuse and hold back and give up in moments like those, and the openness and vulnerability of the interaction is astonishing.
And even if they’re on their way to the happy ending we’re anticipating, it’s still not an easy one, which is a fairly accurate assessment of the picture. Adventureland sounds like any number of coming-of-age movies, but its creator listened a little harder — and the film he made cuts a little closer.