The “Superbad” generation is going to have no idea what to do with “Adventureland.” They’ll see ‘From the director of ‘Superbad’’ in the ads and have visions of inept cops, fake IDs, and slow dances with girls that are having their period. This is not that kind of movie. For starters, it’s set in 1987, and at the risk of sounding like Abraham Simpson, things were much different then. I was roughly the same age at the time as the main characters, and I speak from experience when I say that we were naïve much later in life than kids are allowed to be now. “Adventureland” revels in that naiveté, and treats it as the blessing that it was.
James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, doing his best Michael Cera impression) is excited to spend the summer after college graduation backpacking across Europe, but when his father is forced to take a massive pay cut at work, James must abandon his trip and get a job in order to save up enough money for grad school. His lack of work experience (he was too busy working on the academic extracurricular activities to get a job) leaves him one option: Adventureland, the local amusement park. The job is completely beneath his intelligence, the games he works on are rigged, and the customers are awful (not to mention armed), but James is thrilled to discover that many of the other employees are overeducated misfits as well. He falls for the jaded Em (Kristen Stewart), though unbeknownst to him she is entangled with maintenance man Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who happens to be married.
The humor here is rarely of the belly laugh variety. The jokes are subtle, and when someone dares to be juvenile, namely James’ obnoxious childhood friend Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), the joke, thankfully, is at his expense. Mottola recreates the music and fashion of the era with uncanny accuracy, though he held the supporting characters to a much higher standard than he did Em and James, who look like they walked out of a 2008 high school. Best of the bunch is the gum-chomping Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), the unattainable babe of the park. Her club-hopping wardrobe is priceless. Martin Starr also provides invaluable support as the brainy cynic Joel, though Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are largely wasted as the park proprietors.
The third act, however, is troublesome. The movie’s tone goes south in a hurry as everything goes sour, even for the peripheral characters. The ending doesn’t work either, feeling more like an afterthought than a logical progression of the events that took place up to that point (it screams ‘reshoot’). The character of Em ultimately gets short-changed in the depth department as well; she has back story, and it’s a complicated one, but it could have used more work.
As coming-of-age movies go, “Adventureland” is neither one of the best nor one of the worst. It’s cute enough, and it’s clear that Mottola loves every one of these characters, even Reynolds’ lecherous Connell. The problem is that it ends up being somewhat lightweight, which is fitting since it takes place in the tail end of the ‘80s, but makes it a fish out of water in the cutthroat ‘00s. Pity they didn’t make this in the mid-‘90s. It would have been a smash.(3 / 5)
This originally ran April 2, 2009 on Bullz-Eye.com.