Splitting the difference
About that title: Yeah, it’s sort of a joke. But is well-played light sarcasm also an excuse for Superbad director Greg Mottola’s new coming-of-age dramedy to lack a real sense of adventure? Well, conventionality has its charms, sometimes: Adventureland pretty much splits the difference between Dazed and Confused and the John Hughes comedies of the period in which it’s set.
That would be the summer of 1987, where young James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just come out of college and home to suburban Pittsburgh. Up next, he figures, will be a jaunt to Europe, then the glamour of grad school in New York. James is bright and self-possessed, and he has designs on becoming a globe-trotting literary journalist, or at least a moderately important uptight intellectual.
But it turns out that his parents can’t afford that, so right now James needs a summer job. And, of course, he doesn’t have much relevant work experience. As he astutely explains, “Unless someone wants help restoring a fresco, I’m fucked.” Actually, James doesn’t have much experience of anything at all. But that’s just what Adventureland is here for.
Adventureland is the vaguely seedy local amusement park where young people’s futures come to die, and where James gets to man a game booth for minimum wage. As mandated by his rather exquisitely dorky boss (Bill Hader), James’ job is to tantalize occasional customers with the chance to win a “giant-ass stuffed panda” while taking steps to be sure they don’t. He’d kinda hoped to work the rides instead, but then again, he’d kinda hoped to be on another continent by now, too. Life lesson No. 1: Lower your expectations.
Although awkward in nearly any situation, James makes friends easily enough. For one thing, he always seems to have some weed on hand. Mostly, though, it’s that he finds a few kindred spirits in the park’s coterie of payrolled misfits—particularly Joel (Martin Starr), a jaded Gogol-reading regular, and Em (Kristen Stewart), a sexily sullen girl with a screwed up family life. Em’s of special interest, in fact, but once again James comes up against that experience problem.
For advice, he consults Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the slightly older park handyman who happens also to be a rock ’n’ roll legend, on account of once reportedly having jammed with Lou Reed. But: Whether it’s by virtue of some unspoken carnie code or just the self-propelling momentum of Mottola’s familiar scenario, not everything is as it seems in Adventureland. Complications, and more of those life lessons, will ensue. James will have no choice but to endure his service-industry ennui and romantic upheavals, not to mention the encroaching yuppie menace, and he’ll certainly have a chance to test his new theory that “you can’t just avoid everybody you screw up with.”
To these ends, the movie is well cast. Stewart suffices (which is just to say that her fans from Twilight won’t feel betrayed), Eisenberg and Starr tend to give better than they get from Mottola’s script, and there’s something almost uncomfortably spot on about Reynolds as a fading ’80s poseur of poignantly minimal self-awareness. Hader’s amusingly way-too-serious park manager, meanwhile, has fine support from Kristen Wiig as his amusingly way-too-loyal assistant and wife.
Then there’s the music, which is copious and historically appropriate. Lest its ’80s nostalgia become as intractable as, say, ’50s nostalgia was during the ’80s, Adventureland takes pains to give off the sense that, yes, Mottola was young himself during those Reagan days, yet still always properly clued in—never, perish the thought, so naive as to endorse sincerely anything inauthentic or insufficiently cool. So, fine: It’s enough for him to remind us that “Rock Me Amadeus” was fun and then it was annoying; the Hüsker Dü T-shirt doth protest too much, methinks. And this is why, as concerns its rank in the continuum of recent films whose hobbies include lavishing the Canadian power trio Rush with ironic affection, Adventureland places well above Fanboys, but still below I Love You, Man.
Like its titular recreation area, Mottola’s movie might more frankly have been called Diversionland, but who’d buy tickets to that? Ultimately, it amounts to a single protracted interlude—not such a useless way to pass the time, after all, as long as you know you’ll eventually get out.