Most moviegoers mainly know Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, the self-centered and manipulative genius at the heart of David Fincher's 'The Social Network.' Eisenberg's Oscar-nominated performance in Fincher's Facebook flick hasn't exactly made him a household name (Some people have actually mistaken him for the real Mark Zuckerberg), but it's certainly made the public finally take notice of his talent.
'The Social Network' is easily Eisenberg's most financially successful movie to date, and it's also one of his most critically acclaimed films, but it's certainly not the first great film he's starred in and made better with his unique brand of awkward self-awareness and manboy matter-of-factness; there's 'Zombieland,' the incredibly fun horror-comedy, and 'The Squid and the Whale,' director Noah Baumbach's funny and emotional indie family drama, to name a few. And somewhere in between the broad appeal of 'Zombieland' and the art house aura of 'Whale' is 'Adventureland,'writer-director Greg Mottola's 2009 semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy.
In 'Adventureland,' Eisenberg plays a recent college grad who's probably just as smart as Zuckerberg, but who exhibits little of the Facebook founder's obsession, cold demeanor and dubious morals. The film takes place in the summer of 1987 – it features an amazing late '80s alt rock soundtrack – and it perfectly captures that feeling of post-grad, small town ennui that seems to set in during those summers in between big life changes.
Eisenberg's nerdy James Brennan is forced to take a job at the local run-down theme park, the Adventureland of the movie's title, when his parents can't afford to send him to grad school. This sucks for James since he majored in comparative literature and renaissance studies, and he was hoping to have a "transformative" summer trip to Europe with his college pals. He's not exactly thrilled about having to live in his parents' house and man one of the "many shitty games" Adventureland has to offer. But spending summer at Adventureland soon becomes a truly transformative experience for James after he meets Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart), a fellow games employee who he falls for almost immediately.
OK, this is 'Scenes We Love,' not 'Movies We Love,' so let's jump to the scene I love already: After a few sweet flirtatious moments, James and Em finally go out for drinks, and they have a short but unforgettable conversation about life, love and, of course, sex.
By this time, we know that Em has been having a fling with Brad (Ryan Reynolds), a married, shallow townie who lives to bed sexy young things in his mom's basement (classy, I know). Em is experienced, sexually speaking, but she also exudes an innocence that she usually keeps hidden around Brad and, well, everyone else. Her friendship with James brings out that innocence more and more as the film goes on; it's part of what's great about their relationship. (Stewart exhibits a natural charm in the role that's light years away form her awkward line readings in the Twilight movies.)
James is a virgin. He's a shy romantic, and after one sip of beer he tells Em that he had his heart broken recently. "I just thought I should ... tell you," he stutters. While he goes on about how his past relationship had "potential," Em stops his flow with one unexpected question: "Was the sex good?" James' delayed and non-specific response: "She was very sexy," changes the course of conversation, and he finally admits that he's never actually had "intercourse, specifically."
I loved this scene when I first saw the film because I could really relate to James and his reasons for staying a virgin for so long. He describes a scenario in which he could have had sex with an ex girlfriend, but the circumstances -- and the girl -- just weren't right. Translation: He wasn't in love with her, and in his own way, he demands more out of a relationship than meaningless sex. I also love this scene because it tells you everything you need to know about James in that moment – he's sensitive, nervous, shy and brutally honest – and Em's reaction hints at the depth and humor we'll see from the character later in the film.
The scene is also special because it takes a character we don't often see at the multiplex and puts him at the center of the movie -- an overly sensitive, socially awkward, introspective guy who, believe it or not, wants to fall in love. It's fun watching Eisenberg playing nervous, sensitive and vulnerable in this scene in light of his 'Social Network' performance. In 'Network,' his Mark Zuckerberg always had to be the smartest guy in the room, and he went after his detractors like a lion after a gazelle. Zuckerberg, like James, was incredibly socially awkward, but he rarely, if ever, exhibited James' best qualities: sincerity and wide-eyed idealism.
It's interesting to note that both characters are incredibly insecure and, for the most part, suffer from the same demons, but James is a bleeding heart and a romantic who would rather hold a girl's hand and mean it than brag about his sexual conquests. He's also the kind of guy who wants to win people over with his wit, honesty and good nature instead of using his intellectual gifts to manipulate, control or hurt others, like Zuckerberg does in 'Network.' James has ambition, but he's not blinded by it. He's a more noble spirit than Zuckerberg. Again, both characters suffer from the same demons, but they react to the world and to social challenges in very different ways, and that makes 'Adventureland,' and this scene in particular, worth revisiting this week – the week before Eisenberg will probably go home with an Oscar.