Adventureland works beautifully as a mixtape, but it’s only marginally successful as a movie. It’s not that it’s a bad film; it’s entertaining, sweet, and sometimes funny. But with the notable exceptions of an outstanding soundtrack and better-than-average dialogue, there’s not much that separates it from the glut of nostalgic coming-of-age movies that have found their way into theaters lately.
Set in 1987, Adventureland is loosely based on writer/director Greg Mottola’s experiences working as a carny at a seedy Long Island amusement park. The action has been moved to Pittsburgh, and Mottola’s surrogate is the nerdy-hip recent college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, because Michael Cera isn’t God and can’t be everywhere). Stuck in Pittsburgh for the summer when his parents can’t afford to fund his pre-grad-school trip to Europe, James takes the only job anyone will give him: working rigged game booths at Adventureland (think Dollywood meets the Greyhound bus station).
Run with consistent incompetence by Bobby and his wife Paulette (Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), Adventureland is an appealingly kitschy collection of death-trap rides and impossible-to-win games. It comes complete with its own urban legends: Rumor has it that a customer was once thrown from a ride so violently that his Reebok was flung all the way to the parking lot—with the foot still in it. The ultimate employee transgression is to allow one of the park’s be-mulleted patrons to win a giant stuffed panda. Spend all the time you want smoking weed behind your booth—just don’t give away a freaking giant panda.
James’s sizeable stash of weed quickly earns him a few friends, and it isn’t long before he’s smitten with a fellow carnie, the gorgeous but profoundly messed-up Em (Kristen Stewart). The daughter of a successful lawyer, Em’s job at Adventureland is just a way to get out of the house and away from her new stepmother. Unbeknownst to James, Em is involved in a none-too-healthy affair with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s cool but vaguely douchey maintenance man. James, who somehow managed to complete four years of college with his virginity intact, suddenly finds himself in the middle of a strange and dysfunctional love triangle. Well, technically it’s a love rectangle, since James also woos park floozy Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva). If you’ve ever seen a John Hughes movie, you know exactly where all this headed.
One thing the film does extremely well is capture the kind of clueless immaturity particular to those who have essentially used college as a means of deferring adulthood for four years. For instance, James’s response when his parents tell him they can’t afford to pay for his trip to Europe: “But you can still help me with rent, right?” When he’s not busy getting punched in the crotch by childhood friend Frigo (Matt Bush), James has a lot of growing up to do.
While Eisenberg turns in a solid performance as the likeable but painfully awkward James, the standout cast member is Kristen Stewart. Adventureland, which the actress filmed prior to her star-making turn as Bella in last year’s Twilight, is proof that Stewart is a formidable talent. She gives Em an appropriately tough veneer, but always lets us see the conflicts that lie beneath.
Mottola, best known for helming 2007’s sleeper hit Superbad, has a great ear for dialogue and a knack for placing his characters in uncomfortable situations that bring both their strengths and vulnerabilities to the surface. Though Adventureland has its share of gross-out sight gags, it’s far subtler and more personal than Superbad, and Mottola deserves credit for choosing to examine the transition from college to adulthood instead of the more typical high school senior fare. What Adventureland lacks in originality it almost, but not quite, makes up for in heart. Mottola seems to have genuine affection for his characters and, at least while the projector is running, that affection is contagious.
As you’ve probably already heard, the flick’s music is wonderful. The movie’s soundtrack features an inspired selection of tracks. Nostalgic cotton-candy hits from Poison and Crowded House rub elbows with bona fide classics from the likes of Lou Reed, Big Star, David Bowie, and the New York Dolls, and the score is laid down by indie faves Yo La Tengo.
Adventureland is never as good as it could have been, but it’s charming and tender enough to earn status as a good date movie (as long as your definition of “good date movie” allows for copious onscreen vomiting). It’s a nostalgic and entertaining diversion, but it’s ultimately forgettable.