WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: His dreams of a trip to Europe foundered on the shores of parental poverty, smart but sexually-backward student James winds up working at a crummy theme park to fund his future. While there, he makes new friends, including unconventional Joel and musical mechanic Connell; he also develops a soft spot for co-worker Em, though James may be one complication too many in her life.
1987. Literature graduate James (Jesse Eisenberg) may not exactly be a wow with the ladies, but at least he’s got a plan: a trip to Europe to (hopefully) rid him of his cursed virginity, followed by a journalism course in New York. His parents, however, drop the bombshell that they’ve no money to fund his plans, so to make ends meet James gets a summer job back in Pittsburgh at the tired amusement park run by Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig).
He initially finds his role supervising the (rigged) games a chore, not helped by his painful interactions with old friend Frigo (Matt Bush); but slowly he starts to find compensation for the boredom and terrible wages by befriending colleagues: smart, self-effacing pipe-smoker Joel (Martin Starr), hunky guitarist/mechanic Connell (Ryan Reynolds) and cool chick Emily (Kristen Stewart). Although James and Em find they have a connection, causing him to fall instantly in love, her life is complicated by more than just her hastily remarried father and bewigged stepmother. Perhaps the object of the most of the park’s desires, Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), will offer him an easier alternative…
I’m prone to damning with faint praise – that is, when I’m not damning without any praise at all – but I’m doing neither when I say that this is my favourite of Greg Mottola’s movies. Adventureland’s marketing apparently suggested a rude romp along the lines of Superbad; fortunately, with a few exceptions this comparison is way off the mark. It should come as no surprise that Mottola (director, of course, of Superbad and Paul) touches base with a number of lowbrow themes: erections, urinating, getting punched in the balls, vomiting, beer-swigging, ubiquitous weed-smoking, Bill Hader and his desperately unfunny shtick; but thankfully Adventureland largely transcends the crude stuff to tell a story with something approaching verisimilitude (it’s partly autobiographical, and it shows) and genuine heart.
There are two main reasons Adventureland does alright for itself, and those reasons are named Jesse and Kristen. Eisenberg plays the part of James with warmth and sensitivity, obviously too bright for most of the folk around him but by no means arrogant or unbearably nerdy. He may look similar to Michael Cera, but he acts with a great deal more weight and feeling. Meanwhile, Kristen Stewart – who I’ve never mentioned before – is really good, giving her character believable self-loathing and vulnerability far beyond the words in the script. Mottola (as writer) constantly attempts to prove the thrust of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse (you know, the poem that’s really down on parents), yet Eisenberg and Stewart find their own foibles with which to make themselves miserable.
Not that the leads are all there is to recommend about the film. In vastly differing ways, Starr and Reynolds play their part in rounding out the world of Adventureland, while the ‘adults’ (excluding Hader and Wiig) prove to be exasperatingly unreliable and – as all teens will recognise – rather sad individuals. Also, by placing a simple, universal story in a particular time period, Mottola can draw on nostalgia in the same vein as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion or Grosse Point Blank. The music, not all of it well-known (by me, anyway), is well-chosen if not always particularly 80s in feel; great care is taken to get the look of the film right too, from the instantly-naff T-shirts to the faded attractions of the park, a serendipitous setting because it feels inherently nostalgic in an age of digital home entertainment.
Leaning heavily the other way, however, is Adventureland’s thudding lack of originality. If you’re at all familiar with coming-of-age-type movies from the 80s or indeed any time – Risky Business, The Girl Next Door, Easy A, most of John Hughes’ prodigious output – there’s not a minute of this that you won’t see coming from a very long way off. Indeed, the centre around which the whole story pivots, Emily’s affair with married man Connell, is revealed to the viewer so early that we’re often marking time, waiting for the characters to catch up with us; in this context, 107 minutes is a long time to spend in their company, including a pay-off that might have been better left to the viewer’s imagination. Just as a contrast, Adventureland has none of the invention of the similarly-themed but brilliantly idiosyncratic British film Submarine, which I love (and will hopefully get round to reviewing at some point). Instead, you have the pretty but vacuous charms of Levieva as the ‘other girl’, and a laboured sub-plot concerning Jewish Joel’s brief liaison with Paige Howard’s Catholic Sue, which feeds into the film’s pointedly anti-religious ambiance.
Perhaps I am damning Adventureland with faint praise after all. At the end of the day, it’s little more than a highly-familiar tale of first love wrapped in faded 80s clothing, and for that reason can’t score too highly. Nonetheless, the attractive acting of Eisenberg and Stewart lifts the material above its derivative origins, and helps to lessen the blokish impact of its cruder gags. It’s worth a watch and suggests that somewhere down the line, Mottola might have a more fulsomely praiseworthy film in him.