This new flick is an average coming-of-age story—with a lot of heart.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 31, 2009

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Teenage wasteland: James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) lusts after adolescent hottie Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart) in Adventureland.

Photo by Abbot Genser

A familiar story told with surprising delicacy, Greg Mottola’s autobiographical Adventureland at times feels like a John Hughes movie directed by François Truffaut.

Sure, on the surface it’s your typical “summer that changed my life” comedy about a bookish young virgin learning hard lessons on the way to ditching his cherry—but the laughter is weirdly muted, and there’s a rueful longing that undercuts the farce. At heart, this is the story of a kid discovering that the world is really a much smaller, sadder place than he’d ever imagined.


Jesse Eisenberg (who after Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale and now this has carved out a neat little niche for himself as an occasionally insufferable stand-in for the author) stars as James Brennan, a pompous recent college grad who finds all his grand plans scuttled once boozy Dad gets demoted and can’t foot the bills anymore. James has no choice but to go get himself a job, which is trickier than you’d expect for a Renaissance studies major with no work experience.

He works at the titular Pittsburgh theme park, a ramshackle den of enforced gaiety staffed by bleary-eyed drug users and assorted dysfunctional depressives. Boss Bobby (Bill Hader) and his dim wife (Kristin Wiig) preside over the day-to-day drudgery with panicked, phony enthusiasm—their broad SNL performances only gradually revealing depths of disappointment to match the movie’s melancholy tone.

Our pontificating hero gets stranded in the dreaded Games section, joylessly enticing patrons to partake in poorly rigged tests of skill. (The sum total of his training is that he must “never let anybody win a giant fucking panda,” as the park is running low on them.)

Freaks and Geeks fans will thrill to the sight of Martin Starr as James’ burned-out mentor Joel, who’s the kind of guy who smokes a pipe because he thinks it makes him look cool, then awkwardly hands over a Gogol paperback as a morning- after gift to a floozy who mistakenly made out with him when she was drunk. Much like Starr’s immortal F&G character Bill Haverchuck, Joel faces life like it’s one big argument he already knows he’s lost.

The lone bright spot in James’ unconstructive summer is Kristen Stewart’s willowy, half-gone Em, a drunken tart-tongued mess who sets his heart aflame and caused something close to anaphylactic shock for a certain film critic who shall remain nameless. She’s the kind of aching disaster you’d give anything to rescue, as if she sprung fully formed from the lyrics of a Hold Steady song.

Still, James has no idea that Em has been carrying on with Adventureland’s married maintenance man. A fading lothario who prides himself on fake stories about “jamming with Lou Reed” and then bangs his underage conquests on the pull-out couch in his mother’s basement, Ryan Reynolds at last stares down the shallowness of his fake-Chevy Chase persona. Credit Mottola for finally cashing in on this annoying actor’s shiny fundamental bankruptcy, granting him dimensions of almost tragic grandeur as he prattles on for the 15-year-olds about “rocking with Lou on ‘Shed a Light on Love.’”

If you don’t get that particular joke, Adventureland is probably going to feel like a really long haul. The pitch-perfect 1987 milieu is a character in its own right, and any soundtrack on which Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” and Crowded House can hold their own next to the Replacements and the New York Dolls is an album you’re going to want to buy.

Rewatching Mottola’s triumphant Superbad recently, I was struck by the notion that all the Seth Rogen-penned envelope-pushing raunch wasn’t aging particularly well, but the movie still holds up gorgeously as an end-of-a-friendship vignette to rival Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También.

Adventureland is like Superbad with all the awkward moments intact and the farcical romps cut out. It’s gangly, deeply felt and ends at least a scene or two after it probably should. Still, lovely.

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