So Abby and I recently watched Adventureland, and I thought I'd give my impressions. This is more of a discussion than a review, so if you haven't seen it, be warned that there will be spoilers. If want you want is a review, here's a short one: I liked it. I didn't love it, but I appreciated the approach it took.
Adventureland starts with an incredibly tired premise: geeky, virginal protagonist is preparing for a fancy trip but his family falls on hard times and he is forced to cancel his plans and take a shitty job where he will meet new and interesting (quirky) people and lose his virginity to a hot alternative girl who might just be the woman of his dreams. We've seen this plot (or a variation on it) in a hundred low-brow teen sex comedies. But the movie treats its subjects with a refreshing honesty and delicacy.
For example, take Jesse Eisenberg, who plays our hero: James. In other films (read "other films" as Zombieland), I've called Eisenberg the poor man's Michael Cera, but he seems much better suited to this role. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Cera would have been miscast. But Eisenberg works because James isn't a generic nerd--he's a renaissance nerd! He has a degree in English literature and is going to Columbia to study journalism. His hair isn't Jew-fro, it's Roger Daltry. He has retained his virginity because he's a hopeless romantic and doesn't feel like he's really fallen in love. And he's not lacking in social graces either (which is not to say that he's totally bereft of awkwardness). In fact, he's rather funny to be around. Rather than give in to the tropes of teen sex comedies, Adventureland gives us a well-rounded character with real problems.
Likewise, Kristen Stewart's Em isn't your typical closet-geek-disguised-as-a-hot-chick. She's a real person, attractive but damaged and a little scary. On a side note, I haven't decided yet what I think of Stewart as an actress. You can't really hang Twilight on her, but I can't shake the feeling that she's being typecast here. Her performance was great, it just might not have been much of a performance. Time will tell. Time and The Runaways.
Now we all know what to expect from this sort of comedy (things start getting spoilery here, just so you're warned). Guy and girl will develop a relationship but it will be complicated by something or other. That something will blow up in their faces in Act II and the relationship will be off, meanwhile our hero will have a falling out with his parents and ruin what little remaining plans he had. But, with the help of his friends, he'll have a revelation and do something crazy to prove his love and win back the girl. Part of that revelation will undoubtedly involve our hero realizing that the shitty situation (in this case, working at a theme park) isn't that bad after all. Some of this happens in Adventureland, but not in ways you'd expect. Some of it flat out doesn't happen.
For starters, the theme park never stops being shitty. It's a surreal hell run by crazy people where the customers will threaten to knife you for a giant stuffed panda and where you have to hear Rock Me Amadeus twenty times a day. And worse yet, James and Em work in "Games", the shittiest part of this hell-hole. Second, James's friends never help him out. In fact, one friend does little apart from punch James in the balls whenever there's an opportunity. Almost everyone in the film betrays James at some point or another, except Bobby (Bill Hader), who runs the park. And I will pause here to interject that the one weak point of the movie for me was Bobby, who was played for comedy in a way that seemed to undermine the rest of the film.
Another example, and I really, really appreciate this: Em's and James's relationship wasn't the slightest bit contrived. There was no gimmick that brought them together (your basic sitcom version of this plot would have James lie about himself to impress the girl, that lie becomes the complication that drives them apart in Act II). Instead, they dug each other, and a relationship blossomed organically. There was a complicating factor, but it wasn't that they were from different worlds or that Em was embarrassed that her friends and family would find out (that particular trope gets a proper punch-up in the middle of the film). No, the problem was that she had been sleeping with the park's married handyman (a thoroughly enjoyable Ryan Reynolds).
And when their relationship goes to shit, it isn't because of misunderstandings--it's because they did genuinely awful things to each other. It got bad enough that I half-expected them to not get back together when they were reunited at the end of the movie.
Lastly, I want to credit this film with the proper use of subtext. There was a scene in which James gets chewed out by his mother after wrecking the car. She points out a bottle of liquor that she found in there--it was true that James had been drunk we he got in the accident, but the bottle was his father's. When the bottle hits the table, the scene stops being about James's mother's lecture. While she rants, James and his father exchange a number of pained looks--James is upset for being thrown under a bus; his father feels guilty for letting James take the fall completely, but he also feels too pathetic to step in.
So at the end of the day, I was really impressed by Adventureland. It took what could have been a very normal, mediocre story and made something honest and painful and real out of it.