Movie review by Greg Carlson
“Adventureland,” director Greg Mottola’s strong and welcome follow-up to “Superbad,” moves away from a steady stream of comic vignettes in favor of the more observational approach employed by the filmmaker on his debut feature “The Daytrippers.” A snapshot of a summer season in the life of a ragged Pittsburgh amusement park set in 1987, “Adventureland” is a deft blend of Reagan-era nostalgia and tried-and-true coming of age passages. The period is evoked largely through the 3+ dozen nicely selected pop songs on the soundtrack, exquisitely commenced with the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young.”
Jesse Eisenberg covers the same basic territory as the characters he played in “Roger Dodger” and “The Squid and the Whale,” which is not necessarily a bad thing. The actor once again proves adept at projecting the insecurities of a bright young man whose theoretical knowledge of romance and the world outstrips his actual experience. Eisenberg’s James Brennan wears his innocence like a self-deprecating badge of equal parts shame and honor; he discloses the fact of his virginity to any interested party, perhaps hopeful that the right person might take pity and seduce him.
Clearly overqualified for his position as a “Games” hireling (a notch below the more glamorous “Rides” operators) – which means he fits in perfectly with the other Adventureland staffers – James falls quickly and hard for the guarded Em (Kristen Stewart), another whip-smart wage slave too clever, and we find out later, proud, to seek work elsewhere. Em hates herself for secretly dating married park handyman Connell (Ryan Reynolds, toned down a notch from the usual smooth operators he plays) and also broods over the recent loss of her mother. Naturally, naïve James confides his interest in Em to the older and seemingly wiser Connell, setting course for a misunderstanding guaranteed to result in hurt feelings.
Mottola fashioned some aspects of the movie’s basic premise from his own experience working at an amusement park years ago, and one thing that recommends “Adventureland” is the movie’s sense of culture in microcosm: the way in which a kind of self-contained society is forged from the misfits and oddballs who work alongside the beautiful people. Any viewer who has spent time as a clock-punching minimum wage earner will recognize the easy solidarity that flowers among the Adventureland laborers. They work and party together (sometimes simultaneously), and secrets that should be the business of nobody inevitably become known to everybody.
“Adventureland” calls to mind other period piece chronicles of crepuscular youth like Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” and George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” but the scope of Mottola’s film is more scaled back and focuses on a smaller number of personalities. Like both of the aforementioned titles, “Adventureland” makes room for some excellent supporting turns, including Martin Starr as a pipe-smoking Gogol admirer with no illusions about his lot in life, and Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the amusement park’s married, and slightly off-kilter, management team. The filmmaker’s affection for his characters is earnest and warm, which will only enhance “Adventureland” on repeat viewings.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/6/09.