Strap yourself in for depression
Directed by Greg Mottola
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Martin Starr, Kristen Stewart
Judging from the trailer for Adventureland, casual viewers might assume they’re in for a lighthearted romp through post-collegiate hell. But save for a few full-belly laughs, the film is anything but blithe.
Director Greg Mottola (Superbad) sets his latest coming-of-age story in Pittsburgh during the late ’80s. Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale) plays James Brennan, a freshly graduated intellectual who incidentally looks like Michael Cera with his face punched in. James is looking forward to his graduation present—a summer trip to Europe—until dad gets demoted at work and the family cuts off his funding. Instead of nude beaches and the Autobahn, James has to suck it up and take a job at his hometown amusement park, Adventureland. It’s there that he meets the film’s collection of tragic characters, all wallowing in the depths of underachievement like freaks in a slacker sideshow.
Joel (Martin Starr, “Freaks and Geeks”) is a working-class scholar who’s essentially given up hope for a brighter tomorrow. Ryan Reynolds (Van Wilder, Blade: Trinity) plays Mike Connell, a handyman by day and musician by night who dreams of becoming the next rock god in L.A. In the meantime, he’s content to slink around the park and cheat on his wife. Then there’s the apple of James’ eye, Em (Kristen Stewart of Twilight), who, like so many movie love interests, doesn’t realize what a catch she is. Em and James instantly take a shine to one another. But Em’s charming sarcasm belies a destructive self-hatred.
The Adventureland employees deal with their sorry lot in life by smoking copious amounts of pot and sucking down booze during their off-hours. It is in the sad party scenes that the film’s true colors first surface. These are not the freewheeling kegers of Old School or Animal House. The social gatherings depicted here aren’t a means of getting into a wacky adventure; their purpose is to dull the pain.
However bittersweet, Mottola clearly set out to make a comedy—there are numerous, obvious attempts at humor. Unfortunately, the only jokes that land involve what might be called the Adam Sandler trifecta: penises, erections and getting punched in the nads. While these boner jokes stand up to the stiffest competition (hey-o!), there are few substantive scenes that evoke laughter. In Adventureland, things are either grim or childish.
The film’s best quality is its depiction of the inner workings of a crappy amusement park. Adventureland’s fixed games, unsafe rides and abusive customers should line right up with the experiences of anyone who’s spent time on a state fair midway. Not surprisingly, Mottola worked at an amusement park in Farmingdale, N.Y., and drew much of his inspiration from personal experience.
In Superbad, Mottola’s leads become adept at sidestepping sticky situations. In Adventureland, the missteps are unavoidable. It’s as though there’s an unspoken competition at the park to see which employee can lead the most depressing, lowly existence and who can mope about it the most. A few characters are bestowed with multifaceted personalities, but most are as flat as cardboard cutouts. This is especially true of the romantic leads’ parents, who are at best unsympathetic and at worst comically evil.
Too much screen time is eaten up by the stale chestnut romance between the two lovebirds. In a lazy attempt to find some measure of happiness for his protagonist, Mottola throws together a fast-tracked relationship. It comes complete with rapid infatuation and easily resolved, entirely contrived conflict.
Em and James are the only people worth sympathizing with, and in that sense, the film is right to give them the most attention. But with more development, the other despondent carnies who populate Adventureland could have become just as likeable. Then the movie might have gained some measure of depth.