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(2009) *** R
106 min. Miramax Films. Director: Greg Mottola. Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig.

/content/films/3378/1.jpgThough the suggestion is strictly implicit, Adventureland tells us that life--and particularly young adulthood--is an amusement park. Some laze their way through it, while others toil behind the scenes. Money management could be the arcades with shooting galleries and ring tosses that are blatant money drains, most of them rigged. Head-butting negotiations with family could be the bumper cars. The Tunnel of Love is really about sex (ask Freud), and it’s the Hall of Mirrors that describes the disorientation of love.

So it is for virginal James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg of The Squid and the Whale). After graduating college, James’ nest egg unexpectedly cracks, threatening his rent bills and enrollment at Columbia’s journalism grad school. So his Pennsylvanian summer of ’87 will be spent toiling in a last-resort job at the place called Adventureland, and not even in the cushy Rides department. “You’re more of a game guy,” says the park’s eccentric proprietor Bobby (Bill Hader of SNL). “You’re very gamey,” concurs his right-hand woman Paulette (Kristen Wiig, also of SNL). There’s a bright spot amidst the arcade games and the giant plush pandas he’s forbidden to award: lovely, laconic Em (Kristen Stewart of Twilight).

Em’s sexual experience proves intimidating, and the dramatic irony only makes us more anxious for James, as we learn she has a secret boyfriend in older Rides worker Mike (Ryan Reynolds). Mike treats James as a friend while undermining his attempts to win over Em. This love triangle forms the film’s principal plot, a surprisingly tender young-adult romance. “You don’t owe me anything,” Em tells James at one point. “I want to owe you things,” he replies.

Writer-director Greg Mottola is best known for directing Superbad, and there’s a share of Judd Apatow-style humor. Apatow acolyte Martin Starr winningly plays philosophical University wit Joel, and there’s a running gag about how a stash of weed James acquires, effectively by accident, “endears” him to everyone he meets. Lowbrow antics are the exception: Mottola makes this semi-autobiographical project smarter than the competition, peppering the script with references to Gogol, Melville, Virgil, Shakespeare, Plato, and Lou Reed.

As for the last, music plays a significant supporting role, both in the score by indie rockers Yo La Tengo and the awesome time capsule of ‘80s selections (brace yourself once more--or several times more--for Rock Me Amadeus). Though there’s little in the way of a larger cultural context, Mottola sums up ‘80s political malaise with a scene in which Reagan talks on TV while the Brennan family ignores him in favor of reading or napping. The heart of Adventureland lies in the emotional microcosm of the amusement park, a place that delivers its share of laughs and lust but turns out to be not all fun and games.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD 5.1

Street date: 8/25/2009

Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

The newly minted film Adventureland looks terrific on high-definition Blu-ray, which includes a few exclusives not found on its DVD counterpart. The Blu-ray + Digital Copy special edition features a handsome transfer from a clean source, with accurate flesh tones and color palette and solid depth and detail that maximize the presentation of the filmmaker's intent. Contrast can be a bit inconsistent, but I suspect that owes to variable lighting conditions on location. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn't anything to write home about in its surround dynamism, but it gets the job done with good clarity.

A commentary with writer/director Greg Mottola and actor Jesse Eisenberg fosters an amiable dialogue between an unpretentious director and star. The topics they cover aren't surprising: the film's origins and making, the cast, and Mottola's soundtrack selections. The latter are the crux of another bonus option: a Song Selection section of the menu that allows the viewer to jump to the songs in the film.

"Just My Life: The Making of Adventureland" (16:31, SD) includes outtake and behind-the-scenes footage, as well as interviews with Mottola, producer Ted Hope, Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, producer Anne Carey, Kristen Wiig & Bill Hader, Martin Starr, Margarita Levieva, Matt Bush, Paige Howard, and Ryan Reynolds.

Three "Deleted Scenes" (2:27, HD) come with optional commentary by Mottola and Eisenberg.

The next three features are Blu-ray exclusives. In "Frigo's Ball Taps" (2:34, HD), actor Matt Bush demonstrates his groin-punching techniques.

"Lisa P's Guide to Style" (2:08, HD) finds Levieva in character giving style tips.

Lastly, "Welcome to Adventureland" (1:20, SD & 4:18, HD with "Play All" option) is a funny section of "classic commercials and employee videos."

The Digital Copy resides on a second disc, adding a bit more value to the home-video release of one of the year's most pleasing comedies.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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