Director Greg Mottola plays old songs in new keys and strikes dissonant, unsettling notes. His Superbad was a formula teen-sex comedy written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, but it came out less like American Pie than American Graffiti with a hint of Blue Velvet—the drive to get laid existing side by side with the dread of the world where that leads. (The grown-ups were scarily unhinged.) Adventureland, which Mottola wrote, is a coming-of-age picture made strange by its setting and the graceful tremulousness of its actors. It’s 1987, and the protagonist, James (Jesse Eisenberg), is stuck in a Pittsburgh suburb with his parents between college and graduate school, working game booths in a dilapidated amusement park. Still a virgin, he falls hard for Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart), who’s secretly carrying on with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s too-cool, married fix-it guy. All the characters are old enough to live on their own but are still in the rooms they had as kids (the exception, Connell, uses his mom’s basement for trysts), and they’re chafing miserably at their dependence. Adventureland (the park) offers little in the way of liberation. The creaky rides with their deafening disco music seem adventure-free.
Adventureland isn’t funereal, though—it’s light on its unhappy feet. Eisenberg has been playing arrested heroes for a while, and he’s canny enough never to let you catch him drooping. His face is a fount of uncertainty between a helmet of curly hair and a big Adam’s apple; his skinny frame lists from side to side as if he’s unable to muster the will to show gravity who’s boss; he has to contort to conceal his erections. What makes James so fascinating (and dismaying) is his compulsive blabbing; there’s nothing too personal he won’t say with the least bit of prodding. Or no prodding. It all gushes out—his virginity, his crushes, his heartbreaks. The scenes in which he breathlessly confides in the older Connell about his dates with Em make you cringe, because his words make Connell want Em more. (The advice Connell dispenses is meant to sabotage him.) The only mystery about James is that women find him attractive instead of embarrassing, ostensibly because he’s different from all the inconstant bad boys. Mottola is smart to provide a contrasting defeatist geek, Joel (Martin Starr), who cultivates a nihilistic detachment. At least James is in the world, absurdly hopeful, taking chances.
Adventureland isn’t just a boys’ life. Many scenes incorporate Em’s perspective, and Kristen Stewart (late of Twilight) seems more alive than she did opposite the vampire hunk with the tall forehead. She doesn’t over-diagram Em’s emotions; her murk is vivid. It’s too bad Mottola writes the adult parts so on-the-nose: It’s one thing for Em to describe her stepmother as a “status-obsessed witch,” another to have the actress telegraph that description in every line. And it’s a letdown when the movie doesn’t do more with SNL’s loony minimalists Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the park’s owners. (See Wiig in Ghost Town to appreciate how uproarious a teeny-weeniest of inflections can be.)
But Adventureland hits home—at least my home. Mottola pumps up the soundtrack with music—The Replacements, Hüsker Dü—I listen to when I want that old eighties feeling. I actually have a James-like impulse to blab about my identification with the movie’s needy, overintellectualizing hero: I could feel in my bones his self-disgust as he lay on his bed in his parents’ house, alienated from their values and lifestyle yet comfortable, too. (He doesn’t have to pay rent.) What makes the movie such an unexpectedly potent little number is that Adventureland comes to stand for Stagnationland; the real roller coaster (i.e., life) is just outside the park.
The lush, cornball French melodrama Paris 36 has the kind of impact Baz Luhrmann went for in Moulin Rouge but missed by miles because he couldn’t stop layering one synthetic period element on top of another—whereas the director here, Christophe Barratier, has the taste to stick to one synthetic element at a time. The film is a self-conscious throwback, rich in Frenchy accordion music (there’s a moppet who’s an accordion prodigy) and limpid tracking shots through color-saturated, cobbled streets. It’s 1936 in a working-class district of Paris, where an anti-Semitic gangster with ties to the Fascist front seizes a grand old music hall, and a band of would-be performers—led by middle-aged sad-sack stagehand Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), womanizing Commie electrician Milou (Clovis Cornillac), and sandwich-man turned terrible impressionist Jacky (Kad Merad)—pleads for a chance to keep the theater from being razed. They’ll put on a show! Hopelessly amateurish, the troupe is saved by a remarkably pretty young blonde called Douce with a sweet soprano to match her angel face. The gifted, unknown actress-singer who plays her, Nora Arnezeder, also saves the movie, which would otherwise blur into a mass of droopy, mustached, big-honkered Gallic character actors. My tolerance for French kitsch is low and French accordion music lower, so that I stayed in my seat bodes well for the film’s commercial prospects. The nostalgia isn’t for the period in which Paris 36 is set, but for the petit bourgeois mind-set that settles for its bogus comforts.