In 1987, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has two goals: Spend the summer in Europe after graduating from Oberlin College with his comparative literature degree, and then attend Columbia University for a journalism degree after the holidays end. But when his parents let him know that their financial problems means they can no longer financially support him, they advise he seek a part-time job instead of going to Europe.
So James ends up getting a job at the local Pittsburgh amusement park, Adventureland, where his childhood friend Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush) works. That means instead of vacationing in Europe, he’s working a sucky summer job that has him putting up with hyperactive kids, frustrated parents and lots and lots of oversized stuffed animals. But once he gets acquainted with fellow game operator Emily Lewin (Kristen Stewart) and park maintenance man Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), his socially awkward, uptight self begins to loosen up a little.
Following in the same vein of George Lucas’s American Graffiti, John Hughes’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, or Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is based on his own experiences back in the ’80s when he worked at the amusement park Adventureland in Farmingdale, New York (the theme park used in the film is West Mifflin, Pennsylvania’s Kennywood).
Screenwriting 101: Write what you know.
Aside from his 1996 feature film debut, the indie drama The Daytrippers, Mottola’s career consisted of directing episodes of Arrested Development and Judd Apatow’s Undeclared, until 2007 when his breakthrough film Superbad was released. While Superbad was okay, it certainly wasn’t the comedy classic many were hailing it to be, which was partly why I was late to the Adventureland party. That, and the trailers somewhat disserviced this film by making it look like another Superbad when it’s actually a much more insightful and mature coming-of-age comedy than its advertisements depict.
Not that Adventureland doesn’t have its share of college-age humor, but a majority of the humor here is quieter than most raunchy comedies, aiming for laughs through the characters and their authentic relationships with each other instead of low-brow gags. From a production design standpoint, something you normally don’t bring up with a comedy, nor need to unless it’s really that much of a drag, Mottola shows a keen sense of the period, which isn’t much of a surprise considering his formative years were during the ’80s. From the clothing, soundtrack to even the retro, washed-out color palette used by cinematographer Terry Stacey, the essence of the ’80s captured by Mottola is spot-on.
And kudos to him also for taking Kennywood, one of the oldest and most beautiful looking theme parks in the country (one that is ranked in the top 10 best American parks every year by various amusement park associations), and somehow making it look like the second-rate dump that Adventureland looks like.
Where the film truly shines is in Mottola’s screenplay and characters, all of whom appear as tropes, only to then defy our expectations of who we think they are. Jessie Eisenberg can play these socially awkward geek roles in his sleep, and though some argue that his career’s been stuck on one note, his character isn’t boxed into the confines of geek stereotypes. James Brennan is shy, but not to the point where interacting with the opposite sex causes him to clam up. He’s smart, witty, above the line of work he’s been thrust into, and he certainly knows it, but is far from arrogant about it.
At the time of Adventureland’s release, Kristen Stewart was still smack dab in the middle of the Twilight franchise, and her performance here showed she clearly deserved better than getting hit on by mopey vampires and shirtless werewolves. The relationship she shares with Eisenberg is a complicated one and it’s made even more complicated once Ryan Reynolds enters the picture. Yes, the thought of Stewart getting another triangle to deal with may ’cause many viewers to either roll their eyes right out of their sockets or vomit profusely, yet though Mottola flirts with familiar romantic trio territory, developments that occur between the three of them avoid the obvious routes.
It says much of the effort put into the script that even the secondary characters are treated with the same amount care and respect as the main stars. In particular, Reynolds’s philandering park handyman is the type of character that could’ve turned into the obligatory vindictive dick after James gets in between his and Em’s fling, but he refreshingly stays likeable and maintains many positive qualities, despite his obvious flaws. Margarita Levieva’s Lisa P., the girl constantly on the horny minds of every male employee, is more than just the token snobby pretty girl all the guys fall for, and Martin Starr is deadpan to perfection as James’s co-working sidekick.
The only characters who come close to being caricatures are Kristin Wiig in another mousy performance that makes you believe her character from Knocked Up walked straight from that film and into this one (though she is good at what she does and her onscreen partner Bill Hader also gets a few moments to shine as the dorky park owner/manager), and Matt Bush as James’s childhood friend Tommy Frigo who has a recurring gag of always punching James in the balls. Easy jokes, of course, but thankfully Mottola doesn’t overuse them.
Plus, who among us hasn’t had a friend like Frigo at one point growing up?
Adventureland doesn’t shy completely away from its R rating, but writer/director Greg Mottola fashions a more thoughtful comedy that doesn’t rely on the gross-out jokes of its fellow R-rated brethen, offering instead a story that’s sweet without being mawkish and nostalgic without being obnoxiously referential. Regardless of whether you’re Generation X or Generation Y, Mottola’s strong, character-driven script and his talented cast provide plenty of relatable laughs for everyone.