“Adventureland,” Greg Mottola’s follow-up to the smash hit “Superbad,” is the sort of film that seems simultaneously slavishly derivative of countless other coming-of-age stories, but also admirably personal and specific.
I know. That confuses me as well.
But should it be confusing? We’ve all had oddball summer jobs, jobs that weren’t what we planned for or what we were most qualified for, jobs that still opened the door for experiences we never would have had otherwise. It’s universal stuff.
If my own summer job stories would take place at a summer camp or a pizza place and your summer job stories took place in a law firm or at a landscaping company, I’d bet we’d have some overlapping story elements. Greg Mottola’s story just happens to take place at a rundown amusement park and you could either say that his movie is “familiar” or “universal,” but you’d probably be saying the same things.
More thoughts after the bump…
Jesse Eisenberg plays James, who hoped to spend the summer after his Oberlin graduation touring Europe and getting ready for grad school, but instead finds himself living at home, strapped for cash and running Games at an amusement park. He has wacky bosses (Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, who are in a different, albeit extremely funny, movie) and equally frustrated and over-educated friends (including Martin Starr). He idolizes the cool older guy in a band (Ryan Reynolds, sans beard and therefor funny) and falls in love with the troubled waif from the booth-next-door (Kristen Stewart).
Fulfilling the mandates of this genre, James is also a virgin, which structures the movie a little bit more than it should. Will he get laid before the end of the summer? And will he bed the right girl? If people weren’t compelled by this kind of tale and these sort of stakes, we’d be missing out on classics (“The Flamingo Kid”), solid contributors (“American Pie”) and puerile dreck (“Waiting”).
Like “The Flamingo Kid,” “Adventureland” is fueled by nostalgia. The story takes place in 1987 and the eponymous park is the sort of run-down, sloppy, possibly dangerous places that have been shut down in the last 20 years by juggernauts like Six Flags. From the music (“Rock Me Amadeus” plays a key role) to the video games to the clothing, “Adventureland” is wrapped up in the idea of a more innocent time and place, so if the main character is losing his innocence as well, it’s all part of the theme.
Like a more fully formed Michael Cera, Eisenberg thrives on conveying cinematic awkwardness, a geeky discomfort that makes us relate to him, rather than making us want to stuff him in a locker somewhere. It’s easy to view James as an extension of Eisenberg’s character from Noah Baumbach’s masterful “The Squid and the Whale,” a young man who’s been raised to believe that his book smarts will be rewarded by mainstream society and has to discover just how few people are able to get his literary references and his vocabulary.
I’m still debating if Stewart’s character deserves to take her place on The Onion’s indispensible list of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, but I know that this is the first time I’ve ever been able to forget about Kristen Stewart: The Little Boy From Panic Room to see Kirsten Stewart: The Young Actress Who May Eventually be Hot. I’m still waiting for the movie where Stewart looks like she’s having fun as an actress, but this is a different variation on her sullen routine and she has a couple deadpan moments. It’s doubtful Stewart will get to be any peppier in the upcoming “New Moon,” as the “Twilight” sequel features a near-endless amount of pining.
The big laughs in the supporting cast come from Hader and Wiig, though Starr, Reynolds and Margarita Levieva (blissfully liberated from “The Invisible”) do likable supporting turns.
“Superbad” gave a confusing perspective of Greg Mottola’s directing aspirations. From his feature debut on “The Daytrippers” to TV work on “Undeclared” and “Arrested Development,” Mottola has always been best at detail-driven observational humor. “Superbad” had a script that was lewd, rude, filthy and low-brow, which drew attention away from Mottola’s direction, which was far more understated.
“Adventureland” feels more like a Mottola’s film, which means that the absence of big laughs may disappoint viewers drawn by the “Superbad” name. Mottola isn’t opposed to the comic set-piece and “Adventureland” had a great chase scene through the park and draws a little humor from sexual hijinks and bodily functions, but it’s mostly character-driven and low-key.