Adventureland (2009)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on April 9, 2009 @ tonymacklin.net.

Was young actor Jesse Eisenberg in the latest Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden? He should have been. He's as cute as a puppy.

Eisenberg's doggone precious looks are in evidence all over his latest movie Adventureland. Director/writer Greg Mottola begins the movie with a lengthy lingering close-up of his leading character as he experiences a break-up. Poor Jesse. Sigh. Gasp.

Mottola knows he has a young actor whose expression is teenage angst-in-the-bank. He uses it like a handy ATM card.

Jesse Eisenberg has been in an excellent coming-of-age movie Roger Dodger (2002), and he's been in a lousy one -- The Squid and the Whale (2005). His latest Adventureland is part excellence, and part lousiness.

Jesse plays James Brennan -- Brennan is a classic Irish surname. Maybe there aren't any young Irish actors in Hollywood.

But don't worry about prejudice in Pittsburgh -- James's girl friend Em is Jewish (Kristen Stewart?), and one of his best friends (Martin Starr) is Jewish, which allows for some half-hearted anti-Semitism. Mottola also takes a couple of powderpuff shots at Catholic girls. A Billy Joel he's not.

James's father is played by Jack Gilpin, an actor who graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy (1969) and from Harvard (1973). Gilpin has made a career playing Yuppies on tv's Law and Order. Jesse Eisenberg and Jack Gilpin could only be related in a casting director's weary mind. So much for familial verisimilitude.

Director Mottola hasn't totally shaken off his association with the Judd Apatow stable. Although Adventureland is supposedly somewhat autobiographical, there is not a whit of Mottola's actual roots. But there's a lot of evidence of Apatow's.

One may shudder when he knows he's going to face another coming-of-lazy teenage movie.

Will there be any laughs at all? I laughed six times in 107 minutes -- about once every 18 minutes. Most of these laughs were created by Bill Hader. He's funny as the irrepressible, occasionally-rabid co-owner of the amusement park.

This laugh ratio is not in the same park as tv's fresh The Big Bang Theory, which is a great source of wit and charm. But wit is not a plus at the movies, especially in teenage comedies.

Also Mottola's idea of physical comedy isn't in the same universe as Chaplin or Keaton, or even a great humanistic comedy (which he seems to want his film to be) such as Milos Forman's The Firemen's Ball (1968).

Mottola's idea of physical comedy is when one character punches James in the crotch. It's dumb the first time; the fifth time it's beyond dumb.

Adventureland is a teenage comedy, so how many vomit scenes will it have? 6. As many barfs as laughs.

How many masturbation jokes? Only one, and near the end of the movie, as though Mottola forgot this hilarity, and forced it in at the last moment.

How many kid picking nose shots? One.

Erection jokes? Several, but I didn't bother to count.

Adventureland is the story of James Brennan, who in 1987 planned to go abroad for the summer before enrolling at Columbia University grad school in the fall. But his father loses salary, and instead of traveling James has to get a minimum wage job running a carnival game at the local amusement park in Pittsburgh, Pa.

James is a virgin, and the movie focuses blurrily on whether or not this good boy will lose his virginity.

Em -- his fellow worker at Adventureland with whom James is smitten -- tells him, "I think you might be the coolest and cutest guy I ever met."

Or maybe not.

The best part of Adventureland is the acting; the actors try to humanize Mottola's clunky script. Eisenberg is sensitively callow as the aspiring virgin. Kristen Stewart is appealing as the vulnerable girl who has family tribulations and romantic trials.

Ryan Reynolds is effective as the married man with whom Em has an affair. Hader and Kristen Wiig flesh out potentially one-dimensional roles. Martin Starr adds a little interest as James's homely friend.

But the direction and writing limit the actors. Mottola, who directed and co-wrote Superbad (2007), chooses the easy way, backing off anything threatening in his amiable movie.

The major question of Adventureland is -- will James Brennan ever get laid? How much you care about that question is probably how much you'll like this movie.

Or, it may come down to how much you like coy shtik rather than reality.

But one doesn't have to worry about Mottola. You can take Pittsburgh out of the boy.

Greg Mottola went west. And consummated his relationship -- with Hollywood.

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