It’s the summer of '87 and for recent college grad James (Jesse Eisenberg), life after college isn't exactly what he expected. Realising he can't afford the dream European tour he's been planning he's forced to take a dead-end job at a local amusement park. Forget about German beer, world-famous museums and cute European girls, Adventureland promises to be the stage for the most painful summer of his life. However, as he meets new friends, falls in love and learns to loosen up, he realises that the worst job ever may just turn out to be the best time of his life.
The rose-tinted recollections of that youthful moment when the boy becomes – well, not quite the man but at least a little less boyish, imbue every lushly-filmed frame of writer-director Greg Mottola’s Adventureland.
Based upon his own experiences as a 'summer carnie’, working the stalls at a Long Island amusement park through the mid 1980’s to pay his way through college, Mottola signals early on that he wants to go deeper with his exploration of youthful vigour, melancholic longings and first love. His lead character, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), is a literary major who quotes French poetry mid-conversation; his immediate goal is to travel Europe, experiencing great art and culture, before entering Yale as a journalism post-graduate.
When his family hits tough times, James realises the Euro-experience must wait and his summer needs to be spent earning college dollars. As a lit major coming from a cloistered middle-class life, he’s largely unemployable, until the opportunity arises to work at Adventureland, the local theme park. Though the thought of a summer surrounded by corndogs, screaming kids and piles of pink-hued sawdust does not appeal, James soon finds himself with a new friend in fellow nebbish Joel (Martin Starr, who worked with the director on the cult TV show Freaks And Geeks), a new cool role model in maintenance-man Connell (Ryan Reynolds) and an alluring crush in Em (Kristen Stewart).
Adventureland disappeared from U.S. cinemas in a blink, which is shame, because it is one of the smartest, sweetest coming-of-age tales Hollywood has produced in many years. From a script filled with period detail and richly-drawn characterisations, and utilising vivid cinematography that accentuates the fond memories the director has for this time in his life, Mottola’s film is most reminiscent George Lucas’ American Graffiti . As with Lucas’ ode to his misspent teen years, Adventureland demands of its lead characters a strong, cathartic journey while also celebrating the frivolity of their youth – a tonal balance that is not easy to pull off, but that Mottola manages effortlessly.
In the lead role, Eisenberg is not immediately easy to warm to – his 'James’ is acutely aware of his own intelligence, bordering on arrogance, but he also uses it as crutch to overcome his social awkwardness. At first he looks down at his carnival co-workers, though the film never does - the microcosm of life as represented by the collection of ne’er-do-wells and no-hopers helps James’ understand one’s goals should not just be about Ivy-league connections and middle-class comforts.
The revelation in the film is Kristen Stewart as the troubled Em. First introduced as a hardened carnival games-girl, Stewart peels back the layers of Em’s outer shell until the final scenes, where she is exposed in all her rawness, physically and emotionally. It’s a beautifully-balanced portrayal that adds immeasurably to the impact of the film, and Mottola should be lauded for creating a teenage-girl character of depth, complexity and integrity.
The film’s failure in the U.S. could have something to do with its marketing. Mottola’s last film was the smash-hit gross-out romp Superbad, and the trailers have played up the fact that the director is revisiting teen-comedy territory. And Adventureland occasionally plays to the more base comedy elements – one particularly horrible character gets his thrills by constantly punching James in the testicles; its rose-coloured view of life may have something to do with the red-eyes of all the characters smoking pot, which happens a lot.
But Adventureland succeeds so well because it is so much more than we expect. It certainly delivers the goods as a comedy (thanks in no small part to the casting of Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the park’s owner-operators, Bobby and Paulette) and as a time-capsule of 1987 (a cool period-soundtrack includes Poison, INXS, Neil Finn, Animotion, The Cure, Wang Chung and, to brilliant comic effect, Falco’s 'Rock Me Amadeus’). But Mottola cares too much for his alter-ego and support players to allow the chuckles to override the drama. Brutally honest when it could have been maudlin, touching when it could have been syrupy, Adventureland will make teenagers wish they’d grown up in the '80s and all forty-something’s glad they did.