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The Vacation Not Taken

Adventureland (2009)

Abbot Genser/Miramax Films

The 1980s, though steadily receding into history, still remain the most fertile setting for angst-ridden coming-of-age stories on the big screen. The semi-autobiographical “Adventureland,” from writer-director Greg Mottola, brings forth many of the traits commonly associated with John Hughes and the Brat Pack in a period piece that makes up for its lack of dramatic heft with small moments filled with nostalgia and warmth. This isn’t the broad comedy seemingly promised by the trailers and “Superbad,” Mr. Mottola’s previous film, but a distilled dramatization of one of those youthful summers one remembers forever.

After graduating college, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) looks forward to traveling around Europe for a spell before moving from Pittsburgh to New York City to attend the Columbia University's journalism school in the fall. His post-grad fantasies are quickly dispelled, however, by some serious, recognizably contemporary concerns. His father’s been fired from his job, the family can no longer afford to contribute to his European sojourn, and, really, what’s the point of journalism school anyway?

James is thusly faced with the most dreaded of predicaments: the need to find a menial summer job. After turning off several prospective employers, he lands a position at Adventureland, a rinky-dink amusement park operated by an oddball husband-and-wife team (Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig) and staffed with similar misfits. There, amidst the tacky arcade games, cheap roller coasters and abundance of corndogs, he bonds with Joel (Martin Starr) and falls for Em (Kristen Stewart).

Mr. Mottola leaves the outlandish humor to Mr. Hader and Ms. Wiig, who basically play variations on their “SNL” personas. The movie is otherwise almost oppressively sincere, so in tune with James’s neurotic yearning that it skillfully reflects not only the awkwardness of the first summer of adulthood, but the lack of perspective that comes with it. The camera presents a subjective view of Adventureland, observing James’s co-workers from his point of view and subtly playing up their visual portrayals to fit his psychological characterizations of them. To further emphasize this, Mr. Mottola incorporates multiple reaction shots of his star, a skill for which Mr. Eisenberg has always possessed an aptitude.

The filmmaker neglects most outside forces as the film develops, depicting Adventureland as its own self-contained world. It becomes James’s entire universe, as he and his co-workers socialize during the workday and in parking lots, restaurants and houses after hours. The interpersonal dramas that unfold therein become a microcosmic encapsulation of the larger burdens plaguing his uncertain existence, tinged with the poignant sense of the summer at Adventureland being the last time he’ll ever be so concerned with such small things. Much as the decade of frizzy hair, shoulder pads, leotards and hair metal gave way to the tamer 1990s, so too must the youthful fancies of James, Em and Joel give way to the burdens of the real world after their one last, romantic gasp of childhood inside the park’s well-worn gates.


Opens on April 3 on the United and on July 17 in Britain.

Written and directed by Greg Mottola; director of photography, Terry Stacey; edited by Anne McCabe; music by Yo La Tengo; production designer, Stephen Beatrice; produced by Ted Hope, Anne Carey and Sidney Kimmel; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Jesse Eisenberg (James Brennan), Kristen Stewart (Em Lewin), Bill Hader (Bobby), Kristen Wiig (Paulette) and Ryan Reynolds (Mike Connell).


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