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By Scott Mendelson | April 2, 2009

In Hollywood, political capital often comes in the form of a one-time free pass to make whatever movie you want to make. If you’re Paul Thomas Anderson, you capitalize on “Boogie Nights” by getting New Line Cinema to fund “Magnolia.” If you’re Darren Lynn Bousman, you use your hundreds of millions that you’ve made for Lionsgate over “Saw” parts II, III, and IV to get them to finance that horror rock-opera you’ve always wanted to make: “Repo: The Genetic Opera.” And, of course, most famously, if you’re Cameron Crowe, you use the huge financial and critical success of “Jerry Maguire” to get funding for an autobiographical coming of age story that eventually becomes “Almost Famous.” (Even Gus Van Sant got to take a bite out of “Psycho” after pleasing the masses with “Good Will Hunting.”) All of these films were deeply personal passion projects, and each of them were financial under performers. After that one freebie, each of the directors went back to making movies that would theoretically turn a profit.

Now it’s Greg Mottola’s turn. After scoring a major commercial and critical hit in August, 2007 with “Superbad” (and then watching producer Judd Apatow get all the credit), Mottola has gone the Cameron Crowe route, using his limited capitol to fund a deeply personal, autobiographical saga that fictionalizes the writer/director’s coming of age.

The end result is “Adventureland,” a down-to-earth, almost gritty variation on the cliched “young man comes of age with the help of a hot girl” sub-genre that is ripe for satire in the wake of “Almost Famous,” “Napolean Dynamite,” “Garden State,” “Thumbsucker,” and “Charlie Bartlett.” Some of these are better than others (“Almost Famous” is one of the best movies of this decade, and “Thumbsucker” is insanely well acted), but they almost all fall into the trap of adolescent fantasy. What separates “Adventureland” from something like “Garden State” is a commitment to realism and plausibility. In fact, at times, it is almost too realistic given the location’s inherent value as a comic prop. For a film set primarily in an amusement park, it isn’t terribly amusing.

It’s 1987, and James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) was fully expecting to spend his post-college, pre-grad school summer touring Europe with friends. Alas, economic woes have crippled his family, and he is forced to spend the summer working as a minimum-wage-earning games operator at a local amusement park. Things perk up when he runs into Em Lewin (Kirsten Stewart, now a pop-icon as “Twilight’s” Bella), a fellow employee who catches his fancy. As James attempts a potential romance with Em and navigates his way through friends and foes at the park, life lessons are learned, mistakes are made, and James has the opportunity to find out what kind of person he wants to be for the rest of his life.

There are almost no plot developments in “Adventureland” that will surprise anyone in the audience. But the picture does have a shaggy charm, and that is due to the down-to-earth acting and Mottola’s refusal to paint any of his characters as completely good or completely evil. While certain supporting actors (including Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader, and Kristen Wiig) threaten to fall into stock types, the dialogue keeps them individualized. And the film never passes judgment on the actions of its inhabitants; everyone comes off as mostly sympathetic, even if we may disagree on their choices. Like “Thumbsucker,” this is a coming-of-age tale that makes sure its characters are people first and eccentric types second. And, another rarity, the female lead is given as much of a story arc as the male lead. Kirsten Stewart’s Em is not merely a prize to be won, but a flesh and blood human being with her own issues to resolve.

As admirable as “Adventureland’s” intentions are, the fact stands that the film just isn’t all that funny. While never intended to be as broad as “Superbad,” it also fails to take advantage of the amusement park setting that should be its calling card. I can’t recall another comedy that took place in a theme park, so there is certainly material to be mined. But the rides and games of “Adventureland” barely make an impact. Frankly, the park could be switched out for any other workplace (such as a bowling alley) without affecting the somewhat rote romantic comedy storyline one iota.

Nonetheless, I am aware that I am coming close to critiquing the movie I wanted to see, rather than the film that was made. Taking that into account, I will acknowledge that the film works in the arenas that it chooses to play in. The dialogue is sharp and authentic, the acting is spot-on, and there is a refreshing lack of artificial whimsy. I appreciated the cliches that are avoided (such as a potential second-act romantic dilemma), and I acknowledge that the film is a better than average version of its sub-genre. “Adventureland” is a good, solid little film, and I suppose that is enough for its makers.

But the novelty of setting a comedy at an amusement park is as underutilized here as it was in “Beverly Hills Cop III.” The opening act has fun with the setting, but the film then quickly forgets its novelty. It’s the rare movie that is almost too realistic and too down-to-earth. For me, “Adventureland” brings to mind that climactic line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When truth becomes legend, print the legend.” The movie may be a relatively authentic account of Greg Mottola’s summer of love, but there is a part of me that wishes he embellished just a little bit.

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