, 107 min, 2009
Jesse Eisenberg (James Brennan), Kelsey Ford (Arlene), Michael Zegen (Eric), Ryan McFarland (Brad), Jack Gilpin (Mr. Brennan), Wendie Malick (Mrs. Brennan), Matt Bush (Tommy Frigo), Todd Cioppa (Velvet Touch Manager), Stephen Mast (Rich), Kristen Wiig (Paulette), Bill Hader (Bobby), Martin Starr (Joel), Adam Kroloff (Adult Contestant), Kristen Stewart (Em Lewin), Kevin Breznahan (Molly Hatchet T-Shirt Guy). Directed by Greg Mottola and produced by Anne Carey, Ted Hope, Sidney Kimmel. Screenplay by Mottola.
Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is a dry, deadpan coming of age dramedy and a surprisingly sweet-natured affair, given the pedigree of its maker and the rather dubious marketing strategy.
Pittsburgh, 1987: James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg from Noah Baumbach’s The Squid & The Whale) is a well-to-do college graduate whose parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) hit hard times when his father is downgraded to another department, resulting in a cut in pay. Where does this leave James? He had planned to go to Columbia and to travel to Europe for the summer beforehand with his pal Eric (Michael Zegen). Now, faced with a cashflow problem, James decides to take a crappy summer job working at local amusement park Adventureland, run by the humorously mustachioed Bobby (Bill Hader) and his cutely off-beat wife Paulette (Kristen Wiig of SNL).
Once there, James meets and falls pretty hard for Em (Kristen Stewart), the quirky young gal who operates one of the “Games*Games*Games” booths. They become fast friends but tentative potential lovers, each for their own reasons – the film opens with a close-up of James mid-break up with the gal who broke his heart, and Em is having an affair with the married maintenance guy and aspiring musician Connell (Ryan Reynolds). Well, if James can’t have Em, why not the strictly Catholic (but provocative) dancer Lisa P (played by Margarita Levieva; one wonders if her parents named her after the beverage that caused her conception), who shimmys around the park wearing a pink shirt that says “Rides*Rides*Rides.” Joining him in his summer of love is the dark, uber-serious but lovable Joel (Martin Starr), whose idea of a gift to a potential girlfriend is a book by Gogol (see Mira Nair’s The Namesake if you aren’t sure what he was about) and Frigo (Matt Bush), whose idea of a good time is constantly greeting James by punching him in the crotch.
Greg Mottola was a Sundance kid, making his feature debut by writing and directing The Daytrippers (1996) with Hope Davis and Parker Posey, among others. He went the way of TV after that, directing a few episodes of shows like Arrested Development and The Comeback before hitting it big a couple years back with Superbad (2007), another in the line of Judd Apatow-produced and/or inspired raunchathons aimed at the high school/young adult set.
Now, with this film, the studio appears to be aiming its sights at that demographic again, but this time Mottola (who wrote and directed) has crafted a surprisingly thoughtful, relatively raunch-free, and quite sweet coming-of-age tale which is utterly relatable – whatever the decade. Eisenberg is good here as the perpetually sullen and uptight late teen who wants to fit in and stand out simultaneously; he has the heart of a poet and a degree in Renaissance studies (“Unless somebody asks me to restore a Fresco for them, I’m screwed”). The ubiquetous Kristen Stewart (Twilight) is starting to grow on me; she too seems to gravitate toward the sullen and dark, though less uptight than her male counterpart. The supporting cast is quite good, with Hader and Wiig providing funny but surprisingly believable portraits of exactly who you’d expect to run a summer amusement park in suburban Pennsylvania; they could’ve been over-the-top and aren’t.
Character is challenged, things are revealed, people drift apart and come together, and after this summer, nothing will be the same again. Was there any doubt?