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MOVIE REVIEW

Adventureland

A fairly safe ride: 'Adventureland' has laughs, lust, but little edge

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart play amusement park workers in 1987 Pennsylvania. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart play amusement park workers in 1987 Pennsylvania. (www.miramaxpublicity.com)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / April 3, 2009
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The 2007 film "Superbad" is remembered as many things - funny, sweet, obnoxious, lucrative. One thing it isn't remembered for, despite what the credits say, is being a Greg Mottola movie. Seth Rogen co-wrote it, and Judd Apatow produced it. As such, the film tends to get lumped in with all things Apatow. Like every director in the Apatow fraternity, Mottola was more a traffic cop, making sure the physical and hormonal chaos didn't kill anybody. The sensibility (crude, schlubby, cuddly) was Apatow's.

The film "Adventureland" means to provide a clearer sense of what "A film by Greg Mottola" means. But the forecast is "hazy with a chance of cute." It's the sort of flavorless, willfully quirky, occasionally amusing slice of suburban boredom that, for years, has given the Sundance Film Festival its soft, gooey center.

The film is set in Pennsylvania in 1987 and revolves around James (Jesse Eisenberg), a stammering, inexorably bright recent college graduate bound for Columbia University's writing program. He says he wants to write travel books as Charles Dickens did. A trip to Europe is in the offing. But his parents' sour finances leave him stuck with a job operating the games at an Adventureland amusement park managed by the sort of one-dimensional nonsense couple you'd expect Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, of "Saturday Night Live," to play.

James's awkwardness and ambivalence informs the rest of the movie's tone. Eisenberg has Albert Brooks's sense of intellectual superiority and certain young people's social insecurity. The movie puts both to the most banal ends. James finds himself caught between two of the most nubile girls on the park's payroll. Emily (Kristen Stewart) works in the games department with him. Lisa P (Margarita Levieva) is the little red Corvette of the staff. In case you missed that: Lisa P works in rides.

Stewart and Levieva represent two competing types of sexuality, indirect versus indiscreet. Stewart supplies another movie with the forlorn lust that made sense in "Twilight." The 1980s setting suits Levieva here. What Lisa P knows about carnality she appears to have learned from Whitesnake music videos. Things are complicated by the news that Emily, whom James prefers, has been having an affair with the park's hunky, older married mechanic, played by Ryan Reynolds. James is the last to know.

Mottola looses some interest ing people on the action - a cocky kid named Pete (Dan Bittner) and his socially confused sister Sue (Paige Howard), who looks older than everybody and stops hooking up with James's new friend Joel (Martin Starr) because he's Jewish; an over-caffeinated weirdo played by Matt Bush, who's so funny in those AT&T family-plan ads. Why didn't Mottola build the movie around them?

Some characters can't even see what's in front of their eyes. Lisa P's introduction comes with a marvelous speech from Joel about the aesthetics of her backside. But it's her inexplicably silent black friend Kelly (Kimisha Renee Davis) whose apple bottom fits Joel's description to a tee. How could someone with such a fatal attraction to beautiful butts not notice hers? The movie is colorblind, but body-dumb.

I much prefer last year's "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist" to what's going on here. That film had its imperfections, but it plunged into the here and now of being young and alive and drunk and horny and confused. You could feel the crackle of energy that's missing from "Adventureland," which tries making emotional noise. Yet so much of it is so deadpan and self-consciously arch; it lazily coasts the surface of nostalgia.

In an interview from 2007, Mottola described "Adventureland," which he planned to make after "Superbad," as "indie comedy." That description epitomizes what's wrong with both his movie and most so-called indie comedies, from "Napoleon Dynamite" to "Juno," movies that neutralize life with comedy as opposed to looking for the comedy in life. Race is made safe. Sex is made safe. Feelings are neat and simple. There are no appreciable politics. The soundtracks are always excellent, and everybody is uncomfortably cool. Their hearts, minds, and souls are coated with Teflon.

These are movies that aspire more to mediocre television than to films or moviemaking. As a sensibility, "indie" shouldn't be confused with the riskier, thornier ambitions of American independent cinema, which more than ever is being elbowed to outer regions of the distribution and exhibition process by vanishing studios, yes, but also by trendy niche marketing. "Adventureland" is harmless enough, but "indie comedy" sounds like something better seen at Urban Outfitters than at a movie theater.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

ADVENTURELAND Written and directed by: Greg Mottola

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Margarita Levieva, and Ryan Reynolds

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 106 minutes

Rated: R (language, drug use, and sexual references)