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Among studio publicists and audiences alike, "coming of age" is not a popular label. Perhaps there's a whiff of mustiness about stories that purport to teach lessons that most of us would claim to have learned long ago. Bildungsroman has ceded its spot as everyone's favorite German compound word to Fahrvergnügen, or maybe Weltschmerz. The press notes for Greg Mottola's new film propose "facing-adulthood comedy" -- but no matter what you call the genre, Adventureland is a lovely and hilarious reminder that the bittersweet days at the tail end of youth are as potent a topic as ever.
The young man facing adulthood is James Brennan, comparative literature major and virgin (Jesse Eisenberg in another terrifically smart and awkward performance). The comedy results from his canceled graduation trip. Instead of touring Europe, James who "sometimes reads poetry for pleasure," takes a job running game booths at a seedy Pennsylvania amusement park. It's 1987. Curious characters abound, absurd situations ensue, and a beautiful girl breaks James' heart -- Em, played by Twilight star Kristen Stewart. Judging from synopsis and trailer alone, Adventureland may seem like a film we've seen before.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart in Adventureland

What sets writer-director Mottola's third film (after The Day Trippers and Superbad) apart is its uncanny verisimilitude. The immaculate late-eighties soundtrack features Whitesnake, Crowded House, Wang Chung, and The Cure. Falco rocks "Amadeus" on repeat. Throw-away details feel lived in and real, from the highbrow references (James reads Henry Miller) to the authentic video arcade bleeps. Mottola once worked as a carnie, and he gets the vomiting kids and horny adolescents who navigate Adventureland's stale corndogs and rickety rides exactly right.
Script and cast handle characters with equally admirable depth and empathy. When Em -- black eyeliner, denim jacket, Hüsker Dü shirt -- rescues shy James from being knifed over a giant panda doll, he's hopelessly smitten. In 1987, that meant mix tapes and getting high in unused bumper cars. They make out on couches. But Em has secrets, and you can't come of age without heartbreak. The characters surrounding James and Em are recognizable comic types -- the nerdy friend (Martin Starr), the creepy older guy with the muscle car (Ryan Reynolds), the sexy ditz (Margarita Levieva). But even Bill Hader's hopped-up theme park owner is drawn with enough peculiarity to appear as an only slightly exaggerated version of a real person.

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in Adventureland

For all its sharp writing and well-earned laughs, Adventureland never trades in the ironic mode of Rushmore and Napoleon Dynamite. Instead, the film is suffused with a warm, generous glow reminiscent of Almost Famous. But compared to Cameron Crowe's ode to his '70s adolescence, Adventureland's nostalgia feels more clear-eyed and humble. Regardless of the period, few movies about these universal rites of passage get quite as close to what it actually felt like. I have little doubt the film's appeal will prove to be timeless.

Adventureland (2009)
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Ryan Reynolds, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Bill Hader
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Produced by: Bruce Toll, William Horberg, Ted Hope
Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.
Release Date: April 3rd, 2009 (wide)
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug use and sexual references.
Distributors: Miramax Films

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