Oh, the Humanity

Jesse Eisenberg shines in this realistic, funny coming-of-age flick

When I first saw Jesse Eisenberg in Roger Dodger (which is a great movie, no matter what your pastor or gynecologist tells you), I thought, "This guy is gonna be a star."

I simultaneously thought that his career was over, because everyone I think is going to make it big winds up getting supporting roles in blaxploitation movies and then opening a car dealership in Boca.

But then he was in The Squid and the Whale (which is a great movie, no matter what your Marxist guerilla squadron leader tells you), and I thought, well, maybe he'll make it. Which convinced me that he was doomed to a life of bit parts on short-lived CW sitcoms.

But now I see that he has eight movies scheduled to come out in the next year or so, meaning I can finally and assuredly state that by this time in 2010, he'll be completely overexposed and preparing to do a series of Las Vegas lounge shows.

Because he's great. He's like a dramatic version of Michael Cera, and with Adventureland (and The Education of Charlie Banks, which, for some reason, is now in limited release after spending two years on Fred Durst's bathroom shelf next to a sticky picture of Britney Spears exiting a car), he really gets to show off his dramatic range, which goes from A all the way to those made-up letters from Dr. Seuss's On Beyond Zebra! (which is a great book, no matter what Rush Limbaugh and his 75-year-old Hawaiian dominatrix tell you).

Adventureland is directed and written by Greg Mottola, who made Superbad, which was a decent if entirely formulaic film. Superbad's biggest problem was that the female characters were pretty much two-dimensional and acted mostly as door prizes for the boys. Maybe that's because Mottola was working with a Seth Rogen script, and as lovable as Rogen is, he's basically brain-damaged from all the pot and masturbating to which he's dedicated his life.

But Mottola, given the chance to write his own film, completely trumps his earlier effort. Adventureland isn't a comedy, per se; it's more of a coming-of-age film, though it has some funny moments. But what it really captures is how the worst summer of your life is the best summer of your life.

Eisenberg plays James Brennan, who, in 1987, is preparing to go to Columbia's journalism school when his WASP-y parents give him some bad news: Apparently, his dad's collar-starching and jaw-stiffening business is on the skids, and they can't afford to support young James while he learns how to write media-friendly copy.

So James winds up taking a job at Adventureland, a sleazy amusement park near his home in Pittsburgh. There, he meets and falls in love with Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart). James, though, is a virgin, and Em is receiving sexual experiences at the hands of handyman/lothario Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds). The plot might sound like a standard rip-off of Invaders From Planet X mixed with elements Donald Rumsfeld's diaries, but it's far more human than that combination would imply.

Eisenberg brings a painfully awkward humanity to the part, and he's more than matched by Stewart, who, it turns out, is a pretty good actress when she's not boinking a vampire. Even Reynolds, who's basically a cheesy sitcom actor, is perfect in the role, since his character is a good-looking, glad-handing phony. The rest of the supporting cast is mostly great, too, with high marks going to Martin Starr as the nerdy literature major, and Margarita Levieva as "Lisa P.," the quintessential '80s girl. Levieva does a great job of capturing the '80s-teen-film acting style and epitomizing what was horrifying about that era, from purple eye shadow to the marriage of techno and radio-friendly disco.

Which is another thing I really liked about Adventureland: Most of the recent '80s nostalgia films have soundtracks filled with the Duran Duran/a-ha pop fodder of the day. But that was exactly the music that defined "awful" for the legions of black-clad rockers who made the DIY stuff that influenced '90s emo and 2000s alterna. Adventureland seems to recognize this, with the lovable outcast characters listening to the great American punk-rock of the era while the loudspeakers at the theme park incessantly blast mainstream bubblegum.

So as James and Em pad around in Hüsker Dü T-shirts playing Black Flag and Replacement mixes on their car cassette decks, the world around them is squeezing shoulder pads on top of shoulder pads and purple leggings under Flashdance T-shirts, and it's like watching Frodo and Sam trying to hold back the world-destroying powers of Sauron. Which is to say, moving and charming—a redemptive, promising moment for writer/director Mottola. The film has only one major flaw: Mottola, perhaps still not free from the infantile Apatow-ism of his earlier film, has a recurring joke about James getting punched in the man-bits. Cockpunched, as the kids today say.

Cockpunching is about as funny as vomiting, which is, no matter what the Farrelly brothers say, not actually funny. So we could have done without it. But overall, this is a quantum leap in maturity from Superbad (which is an amusing but mediocre movie, no matter what your right-wing talk-show hosts and anti-abortion terrorist friends tell you), and with any luck, Mottola will continue to thread the fine gap between sappy romance and stupid humor in his future projects, bringing us more of this very human filmmaking.

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