These Are the Best Days of My Life?!
2009 // USA // Greg Mottola // April 22, 2009 //Theatrical Print
B- - Don't permit the promotional campaign to fool you into supposing that Greg Mottola's wistful, kitschy coming-of-age tale, Adventureland, is in any significant way a successor to the director's superb, bromatic comic odyssey, Superbad. Certainly, the two films share an unexpected curiosity and emotional generosity towards their characters. If one can discern a pattern from just two feature films, then a signature feature of Mottola's work is his oddly humanistic approach to caricature, where he glories in ridiculous characters even as he probes at their inner lives with remarkable affection. If anything, Adventureland, with its rich stable of personalities and the enthusiastic, bittersweet tone of a "That Crazy Summer" anecdote, applies this approach much more generously. What it lacks, however, is Superbad's deliciously crude belly laughs, the poignancy of that film's central narrative of a delayed pubescent leave-taking, and--let's be honest--the presence of Michael Cera and Jonah Hill. That first item is the most conspicuous, as the gags featured in Adventureland's trailer are, more or less, the only gags in the film. Mottola's script, based loosely on his own experiences working in a cruddy amusement park, just isn't that funny. Which is okay, since Adventureland isn't really comedy but a bemused and pleasantly miserable bit of post-collegiate nostalgia.
The film's premise is pretty simple: In the summer of 1987, recent graduate and aspiring journalist James (Jesse Eisenberg) finds himself stuck at home in Pittsburgh when his plans for a pre-Columbia U. jaunt to Europe are foiled by a meltdown in his family's finances. Lacking any "real-world" experience, James is obliged to take the most dismal of summer jobs, a stint at the thoroughly cheerless local amusement park, Adventureland. While Mottola employs his setting to squeeze some theme park-related sight gags and absurdities out of the story, Adventureland the place is utilized primarily to establish a space of squalid despair thinly veiled in merriment. In short, the park serves as a stage for the film's punchy, disposable exploration of dissatisfaction, tawdriness, and cowardice, and also of the ways that one finds small pleasures in lousy circumstances. (Those pleasures consist primarily of sex and weed, in the case of Adventureland's hapless, apathetic teenaged carnies.) Accordingly, Adventureland is not really an enjoyable ride, but it is affecting in its way, not necessarily because the characters are believable, but because their plights are excruciatingly familiar.
Adventureland is not so much the story of James' shitty summer job as it is the story of his friendships and rivalries, especially his romance with painfully cool girl-next-door Em (Kristin Stewart), a fellow hawker in the park's midway. Stewart's acting might be as colorless as window glass, but she does have the sort of effortless prettiness (and adorable overbite) that could easily woo a sexually naïve, over-educated hipster nerd like James. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the director of the haltingly quasi-feminist Superbad, Mottola devotes a sizable chunk of the film to exploring Em's problems from her perspective, particularly her insufferable home life and the married boyfriend she just can't seem to drop. Indeed, this is Adventureland's approach to most of its characters: sketch an easily digestible personality, then crack open the door and permit the viewer to peer into their private pain. Thus, we get characters like James' fellow carnie Joel (Martin Starr), a gloomy nebbish who is painfully apologetic about his affectations and passions. Or Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), the park's obligatory sexpot, a savvy sweetheart with an unfortunate misogynist streak. (In one of the film's unexpected moments, James calls Lisa out for giving an adulterous man a pass while denigrating his mistress as a whore.) Or maintenance stud and moonlighting musician Mike (Ryan Reynolds), whose endless bullshit and too-cool-for-this-job facade start to crumble upon casual scrutiny.
The only notable characters who remain essentially cartoonish are the park's space-cadet owners Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), a pair of blissfully oblivious opportunists who are alternately corrupt (frying up spoiled corndogs) and authoritarian (policing guests for littering with steely eyes). Still, their enthusiasm for their sleazy little enterprise is palpable, and their devotion to each other and their ad hoc family of park employees is non-negotiable. (Just to prove the point, when a customer threatens James, Bobby bursts from his trailer wielding a baseball bat, bellowing like a maniac.) It's hard not to grin whenever they're on screen, not matter how outrageous their behavior, because they are the clowns of this tale, much as Hader and Seth Rogan were in the roles of Superbad's lunatic cops.
Adventureland is quite adept at summoning the post-college ennui that settles over middle class wannabe intellectuals. (Not that I know anything about that...) Certainly, its design and soundtrack seem tailor-made to tap into the brainstem of a thirtysomething demographic that will respond viscerally to the film's despairing tone and pop cultural texture (call it The Graduate Ultra-Lite). It's a charming little achievement in this respect, and fortunately Mottola doesn't overreach by trying to be anything more, which makes its mildly deft emotional touch all the more pleasing. To be sure, the story isn't anything revolutionary: Adventureland is ultimately about James' struggle to overcome self-doubt about his career, sex life, and worldview. As written by Mottola and embodied by Eisenberg, James is amiable, but not nearly compelling enough of a character to enliven such wrung-out themes. The result is that Adventureland feels a little underwhelming, in the manner of any fried confection that gratifies but doesn't truly nourish.