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Sony Pictures // R // August 25, 2009
List Price: $44.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 22, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Mottola could've had it easy. Coming off the colossal success of Superbad, he could've ridden that juggernaut to a hefty paycheck from pretty much any studio the world over. Instead of tossing Superbad in the microwave or dusting off whatever shitball comedy scripts were chucked his way, Mottola opted instead to write about the summer he spent working as a carny at a crumbling amusement park. Adventureland isn't some howlingly raunchy comedy, though, and it's not mired in the sort of angsty drama you'd probably expect from a coming-of-age story (which, yes, the movie is despite the fact that its characters are all in their twenties this time around). Adventureland doesn't fit comfortably under any heading, really, and that's what makes it so compelling: it comes across as a slice of life rather than a movie.

Dateline! 1987. With a degree in Comparative Lit in one hand and an acceptance letter to Columbia's graduate program in the other, James (Jesse Eisenberg) is ready to shuffle off to Europe for the summer. He has every step of the trip calculated down to the very last cent, but what James didn't really take into consideration was his pop (Jack Gilpin) being demoted at work. Europe's out, and his folks aren't even going to be able to help him out with rent in the Big Apple. That's a drag, but it'll be okay in the end; James has all summer to squirrel away money for Columbia, so all he has to do is land a job. Turns out that's kind of a tall order for someone who can't really do anything but ramble on about Charles Dickens' travels to prisons and sanitariums, but the rotting, crumbling, embarrassment of an amusement park down the road -- Adventureland! -- is always desperate for warm bodies to work the stands. James is stuck working games that are mostly rigged: y'know, toss rings that won't fit on bottles, try to knock off hats that have been glued onto mannequins' heads, call a fake horse race like a hypercaffeinated announcer at the Kentucky's depressing, soul-crushing work, but at least it gives James a chance to pal around with Em (Kristen Stewart). It doesn't seem like a match made in wherever -- the awkwardly pretentious lit kid and a girl this beautiful and fiercely rebellious -- but they get along immediately, and James eventually stumbles his way into boyfriend-dom. Em's been kind of a wreck ever since her mom died, though, and she's let herself be used by Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park's maintenance guy-slash-resident rock star, whenever he decides he wants a taste of something about fifteen years younger than what his wife has to offer. So...yeah. It kind of goes without saying that none of this ends well for much of anyone.

Adventureland shrugs off a lot of the usual conventions. For one, Em and James like each other straight off the bat; there's none of the usual they-meet-cute-but-can't-stomach-each-other, one of 'em chips away at that Wall of Dislike, they fall know how the rest of that song goes. There's not some looming arch-nemesis to conquer. The "worst" character in the movie in that sense is Connell, who's really just a pathetic guy pawing for something more while pretending he already has it. Connell isn't an obstacle, though. He actually tries to help James along, and he never makes it a point to really stomp on that blossoming romance...Connell just wants what he wants, and he can take or leave anything else. That's a template quite a few of the characters in Adventureland fit: deeply flawed but likeable enough that you can generally handle the good with the bad. Em is numbed by her pain that even though she knows her flings with Connell won't ever amount to anything, she subjects herself to them anyway just to feel something. I'd only caught Kristen Stewart in bit parts up till now, but she makes an enormous impression here, juggling Em's detachment with some gruelingly emotional moments. Another standout is Martin Starr, whose character is kind of a shattered mirror image of James. Poor, not particularly good looking, saddled with a meaningless degree, wholly aware just how ridiculous his affectations are, no real friends to call his own...Joel appreciates what James has more than he does.

Jesse Eisenberg is an
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inspired choice to play the lead. The soft-spoken awkwardness isn't too far removed from what Michael Cera has done for...well, his entire career, but Eisenberg invented that sort of character first, and he brings some extra flourishes that I'm not sure Cera could pull off as well. James has kind of a pretentious streak, so taken with certain words and phrases that he'll recite his Dickensian analogy about a future as a travel essayist to different people verbatim. He's also kind of a dick. It wouldn't be a love story if someone didn't do something stupid, and James' reaction to learning about Em and Connell's trysts is unforgivably cruel. Some movies split their young lovers apart because the script tells them to, but in Adventureland, it feels so much more in-character. Yes, James' overreaction is irrational, but at the end of the day, he's...what, 22, maybe? Feeling inadequate and insecure, James doesn't know how to react, so he lashes out. He doesn't behave like an adult because he's not one...close, but not quite there.

There's been some grousing on DVD Talk's forums that Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart really don't have all that much chemistry together. That's true to a point, but I think this is one of those rare cases where that works to the movie's favor, actually. It's kind of the Scott Pilgrim dilemma: he's smitten with her because...well, who wouldn't be? Em's intrigued by that infatuation, and since he seems like so much of a nicer guy than the pricks she usually pals around with, she decides to give it a shot. It's not love. Sure, it might wind up there eventually, but leading up to those final few days before the park shuts its doors for the season, they're just playing their parts...doing what they think they're supposed to be doing, not that anyone in Adventureland has any idea what that really is, exactly.

Adventureland has a kind of oddball sense of humor, and it's not even close to what the TV spots painted. The gags that really drew me in are half-whispered, almost muttered just as the camera starts to veer away. It's completely disinterested in Big Comedic Setpieces!, and its characters are more likely to poke fun at graffiti reading "Satin Lives" (no doubt the handiwork of a textile-worshipping cult!) or that one of the park's rides is misspelled "The Flighing Dutchman". On one hand, the comedy's really low-key and understated, and on the other...well... You have Frigo (Matt Bush), a prick who pees on a window, rants about jerking off on James' face if he'd doze off, and spends the entire movie slugging guys in the balls. Munch (Barret Hackney) belts out his screechiest Geddy Lee and air-drums to "Limelight". It's like nails on top of more nails on chalkboard -- and that's the point, natch -- but it feels spliced in from something else altogether. I'm a huge fan of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, who latch onto kind of a classic comedy routine as the park's married managers. Yeah, I'm digging Hader's cartoonish moustache, and there's something kind of funny about how chintzy the two of 'em are, how desperate they are to be liked by the college-aged staffers, and their passive-aggressive ways of tolerating each other. Still, it too often feels completely out of step with the rest of the flick. There's enough I like about Adventureland that I didn't mind it that much, but I think the movie would've been better off plowing ahead full-bore one way or the other...either keep it low-key or go deliriously over-the-top.

I may have
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mixed feelings about Adventureland's stabs at comedy, but there's no ignoring how amazing its taste in music is. Alongside a terrific score penned by Yo La Tengo, the soundtrack piles on dozens of great songs. The very first sound in the movie is "Bastards of Young" by The Replacements, and the 'Mats are joined by Lou Reed, Big Star, The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Husker Du, Nick Lowe, and The Cure. Adventureland heaps on dance-pop like Expose's "Point of No Return", two scoops of hair-metal, Crowded House's enduringly lovely "Don't Dream It's Over"...hell, even Falco's "Amadeus" blared over and over and over. Its excellent soundtrack is part of the reason I'm glad that Adventureland is a period piece. Mottola doesn't get caught up in any of the neon-spandex-weren't-the-eighties-crazy!!?!? kitsch that peppers a lot of these movies. There's a certain...innocence that goes along with a backdrop where everyone and everything doesn't have a cellphone or two in hand, and one of Adventureland's strengths is the understated sense of nostalgia it inspires. It really does feel like a middle-aged guy wistfully looking back on that summer.

The trailers may have painted Adventureland as cut from the Apatow cloth, but it veers off into a different direction altogether. This is an understated love story about a couple of aimless barely-twentysomethings clawing their way towards adulthood. Nothing awe-inspiringly dramatic happens, and it won't leave much of anyone doubled over in laughter, but it's that low-key approach...its sincerity...that drew me in. Recommended.

Oh, and don't get tripped up by the "Unrated!" banner on the front cover. This is the R-rated theatrical cut of the film, and there isn't an unrated version lurking in the shadows. (Greg Mottola notes that he was approached about putting one together, but his director's cut would probably be ten minutes shorter, even.) The extras are unrated, but that's completely meaningless, and there's nothing in that half-hour or so of footage that couldn't at worst score an R rating anyway. Despite its bloated sticker price -- Adventureland is saddled with a $45 MSRP -- this Blu-ray disc seems to be priced at retail the same as most every other day-and-date release coming down the pike, and that eases the sting of a not-particularly-great selection of extras.

I'm really impressed by just how well Adventureland has turned out on Blu-ray. It has some uneven stretches, sure, but its 1080p video is nearly always crisp and richly detailed. Black levels are generally deep and inky, bolstering the almost three-dimensional look of this high-def image. Rather than slathering the screen in the sorts of skewed, candy-colored hues I'd expect from a late-'80s period piece, its palette tends to have a golden tint to it, almost as if I'm squinting outside at a quarter to six as the sun is just starting to head down. Its colors are really striking, especially the smooth gradients in the lighting. The faintly gritty texture of the film grain also helps set a certain nostalgic tone, and Adventureland just wouldn't have been the same movie if it had been shot digitally. This particular stock doesn't look as if it holds up particularly well under low light, though, and in some night shots, blacks tend to look like more of an off-kilter purple. That doesn't happen so often as to drag the overall score down all that much, though, and Adventureland is yet another in a long line of strong outings on Blu-ray by Miramax.

Very faint letterboxing preserves Adventureland's theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and its AVC encode is kept at a high enough bitrate to spill over onto the second layer of this BD-50 platter.

Adventureland sports a remarkably effective 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track. Rather than light atmospheric color meekly lilting from the surrounds, the mix is spry, lively, and unexpectedly immersive. There's a consistently strong sense of directionality, and the imaging even extends to Yo La Tengo's score as its instrumentation spreads to fill all of the channels at its fingertips. Bass response can be deep and resounding when it needs to be, particularly during a thunderous fireworks display. Adventureland is most intensely driven by its dialogue and a sprawling soundtrack, and those are both rendered well, although a few scattered lines do slink further into the background than I would've liked. Overall, though, Adventureland is packing a great mix that's at least a little more ::wait for it...wait for it...:: adventurous than I would've expected.

Also included are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French and Portuguese. A stereo dub is served up in some exotic language whose characters I apparently can't decipher, and because at least part of the expansive list of subtitles is presented that same way, I can't really rattle off any more than the English (SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese subs.

There's surprisingly little here: an audio commentary, a hit-or-miss EPK, and another fifteen minutes of fairly weak laughs.
  • Audio Commentary: I have
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    to admit to feeling kind of let down by Adventureland's other extras, but this really great commentary with writer/director Greg Mottola and star Jesse Eisenberg makes up for it. Dryly quippy, the two of them dig into everything from the relentless Michael Cera comparisons to Dickensian gangs of pint-sized carny-game-conspirators to glamorous meetings at the T.G.I. Friday's by the airport to European bumper cars. The commentary gives a sense of just how challenging it can be to shoot a low-budget movie on such a tight schedule, and other frequent topics of conversation include delving into the dozens of songs on the soundtrack, Mottola comparing and contrasting the movie with his teenaged stint at Adventureland twenty-five years back, fleshing out a slate of compellingly flawed characters, and his own philosophies about working with actors. ...and hey, if you learn something about Victorian hoops and Greek revival dresses, all the better.

  • Deleted Scenes (2 min.; kinda-sorta-HD): The deleted scenes reel is awfully short this time around. Two of the three scenes are gags set in Bobby and Paulett's office: first to bat is a grandpa miffed that his kid's been stuck on a ride for a few hours straight and the other is a drunken mom who gets a hold of the intercom. A little more substantial is a conversation where Connell tells James just how much his wife means to him. The first two fit in pretty well with Adventureland's low-key sense of humor, and the last one's okay but inessential. Mottola and Eisenberg belt out audio comentary for these scenes too, chatting about where they originally fell in the film and why they were yanked out.

    These extra snippets are encoded in high-def, but the footage is so soft and mushy that it'd be tough to distinguish from an upconvert.

  • Just My Life: The Making of Adventureland (17 min.; SD): The overwhelming number of clips from the flick can be kind of grating, but "Just My Life" is overall a pretty decent making-of piece, breezing through Mottola's summer at the real-life Adventureland in Long Island, lining up the cast, taking over Kennywood to help sell this period piece, respecting the '80s backdrop, and digging out the humanity in a prick like Connell. For whatever reason, there's a deleted scene about stuffed tiger placement that's only available in here. Also piled on are plenty of behind-the-scenes shots, including some making-outtakes (Get it? Outtakes of actors kissing? Eh, I guess there's a reason I'm not being paid to do this).

  • Frigo's Ball Taps (3 min.; HD): This Jackass-flavored bit follows Matt Bush skulking around the set and showing off a parade of ball-whacking techniques. Wasn't there...y'know, way more than enough of this in the movie anyway?

  • Lisa P's Guide to Style (2 min.; HD): Shot like something I bet I could've spotted in a Pic-'n-Save cutout bin a couple decades back, this really quick riff with Margarita Levieva gives a nod to The Lost Boys and Desperately Seeking Susan to highlight what's hot in fashion in 1987.

  • Welcome to Adventureland (6 min.; mix SD/HD): This reel piles on two fake promos for the theme park (including stars-and-stripes vomit!), a lo-o-o-o-o-o-ong employee training video, and a '70s-ish drug policy film. Like "Lisa P's Guide to Style", these clips lean too heavily on kitsch and don't really score all that much of a laugh.

Adventureland opens with seven minutes (!) of high-def trailers and promos, although those can at least be skipped. This Blu-ray disc comes packaged with a glossy cardboard sleeve, and the standard issue digital copy is also tucked inside.

The Final Word
What's particularly startling about Adventureland is that...well, there's nothing startling about it at all. This isn't a movie that clings to formula like some sort of security blanket. It doesn't have the same booming sense of humor as Superbad and doesn't wade around waistdeep in teen angst either. Adventureland's charms are much more understated than that...about real barely-twentysomethings fumbling their way through life and love. Nothing sweeping or overly dramatic happens, it's not a laugh riot, and this isn't a movie likely to still be lingering in your mind two or three years down the road. Some may point to that as a misstep, but to me, Adventureland feeling so much like a summer carved out of someone's life is precisely what makes it worth seeking out. I'm especially keen on the idea of a coming-of-age movie that isn't rooted around clean-scrubbed kids fresh out of high school, and its underlying intelligence, respect for its characters, and understated sense of humor set it apart from pretty much everything else out there. Recommended.
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