You know, I think if the worst job you’ve ever had is to have a slacker’s post at an amusement park for the summer, you’d do well to be thankful for a relatively blessed life. Adventureland’s premise, proposing to be a comedy about the mundane episodes of a summer “carnie,” as the characters in the film call themselves, might sound like a whiner’s vanity project; but Superbad director Greg Mottola puts some of that realization into the film, turning it into the kind of film where the monotony isn’t something to fight against, but perhaps an experience to draw from as you grow up.
Summer was supposed to be a vacation for James (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent college graduate who had big plans of spending his summer in Europe before shipping off to New York for Columbia’s journalism grad school. James’ plan hinges on a budget accumulated from grandma’s gift, mommy and daddy’s protection, and a rich friend’s charity. Instead, the reality of becoming an adult hits him when his dad is demoted at work and the family income tightens (the film is set in 1987, but boy, the zeitgeist hath been tappeth). Working at Adventureland to save money, James, who is a virgin, starts an awkward romance with Em (Kristen Stewart), who unbeknownst to anyone is the mistress of a much older and married man, the park’s popular maintenance guy Connell, played by a deliberately humorless Ryan Reynolds.
Perhaps it’s the semi-autobiographical nature of the story... Mottola’s insight into the kids’ stalemate routines feels honest and informed. Despite the rides-and-games surroundings, you do get a sense that the highlight of their day is the night time parking lot huddle where they drink, smoke pot, make out, and tell crazy stories of dumb customers. Far from painting them as cool underachievers, their carefree lifestyle says more about how far they have to go before they eventually realize that Adventureland is a place you “graduate” from. The ones who learn are the ones who leave that summer job with a renewed perspective. When the summer’s over and the park packs it in, the well-meaning manager (Bill Hader) asks James if he’ll work there again the next summer—like a prison warden asking a parolee if he’d make the same mistake. The cautionary tale here is Connell, who’s unable and unwilling to escape from Adventureland’s fountain of youth folly, despite his nagging responsibilities as an adult.
While the coming-of-age subject matter of Adventureland invites comparison to Superbad’s teenage woes, its tone and sense of humor diverge significantly. A welcome surprise for Mottola, who wrote the screenplay himself and must realize that Adventureland’s sweet love story and naturalistic dry humor will leave fans of Superbad’s outrageous situations and vulgar quips rather shortchanged.
Mottola’s output here recalls the work of someone’s first Sundance entry, not the director of a big teen hit. Many of the story’s subplots are handled subtly and gracefully. James’ father’s depression over his job is left unsaid, hinted only by a half-empty bottle left in his car. A fellow Adventureland employee’s feelings for Em is also concealed, noticeable only by a longing look he shoots James and Em when they’re together.
Even the shortcomings of the two leads oddly become an advantage for the characters. Eisenberg’s acting style and character trait seem heavily modeled after Michael Cera, but his awkwardness doesn’t have Cera’s instantly humorous spin, making James more human and believable as a protagonist. Kristen Stewart still uses pouting and languishing about as her default emotion, though here she has a legitimate reason for it—as her character is bitterly damaged and insecure—rather than simply following a film’s terribly forced sulky mood. Better still is Martin Starr as Joel, the nerdy confidante who’s even more socially inept than James. Starr is just the right touch of sympathetic and goofy, the supporting character you want to be your real friend.
Adventureland is a sad and tender story, but it’s also full of wonderful humor that, in an age of raunchy comedies, is pleasantly far from contrived. The humor within the dialogue blooms naturally from the kids interacting with each other. There are also enough oddball side characters to keep the film eccentric and fun, all of whom are endearingly special in their own ways, even when they’re insufferable. It’s funny without trying too hard, rocking a mellow Freaks and Geeks vibe that cannily gets you to care for its group of less-than-admirable potential adults. Not the laugh factory Superbad was, but easily the superior film.
"Adventureland" opens April 3, 2009 and is rated R. Comedy, Drama. Written and directed by Greg Mottola. Starring Bill Hader, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Kristen Wiig, Martin Starr, Ryan Reynolds.