It’s always the worst experiences in life that make us who we are. In “Adventureland,” a group of college students find that the worst job they could have ever imagined – a deplorable carnival, where the corn dogs are smarter than the guests – might actually be the best time of their entire lives.
Jesse Eisenberg (“The Squid and the Whale”) stars as James Brennan, a recent college graduate, excited to move to a New York apartment and his postgraduate work at Columbia. Unfortunately, after his alcoholic father gets demoted, James must find a summer job. Having never been employed in a real job, and being a fresh-faced college graduate, James is quite naïve when it comes to job hunting – often showing up with SAT scores and high expectations for the most menial of interviews.
Eventually, James gets a job at Adventureland as a game operator. His new co-workers include his bizarre married couple bosses Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), the introverted yet bitingly sarcastic Joel (Martin Starr), the crotch-punching obsessed Frigo (Matt Bush) the local celebrity/maintenance worker Connell (Ryan Reynolds) and most importantly, the strangely alluring, but psychologically imbalanced Em (Kristen Stewart). He quickly becomes friends with all his fellow carnies, as they all have two very similar interests – they all hate Adventureland, and they all smoke a lot of weed.
The film is director Greg Mottola’s third major feature, after 1996’s “The Daytrippers” starring Liev Schreiber and Parker Posey, and 2007’s hit “Superbad,” which starred Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. While the latter film had its unquestionably side-splitting moments and birthed the iconic “Mclovin,” in comparison – “Adventureland” proves a much more mature film. Mottola based a lot of the storyline on his own personal experiences at the real Adventureland in Farmingdale, N.Y.
For Mottola, “Adventureland” is an intriguing step for the up-and-coming writer/director. The film is far from perfect, and isn’t particularly memorable – but it is a refreshing indie feature.
The film proves quite personal, which, unlike the often sophomoric and often awkward “Superbad,” makes the film more enjoyable. “Adventureland” has a very clichéd story – James falls head over heels in love with Em, they get together, and then break up, and then get back together again. All the pieces are very familiar, but it’s Mottola’s flair for building his characters as realistic, flawed characters that make them endearing.
The character of James is a very well-written – the post-college graduate who’s finally learning about the so-called “real world.” He’s the sensitive type – always listening to The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” on repeat, and even throughout college, he kept his virginity in check. His inexperience in life dismisses characteristic idealism and when he finally achieves coming-of-age, his realizations are genuinely heartwarming. He wishes he had all of life’s answers, but doesn’t – and his experiences at something as socially degrading as Adventureland help him find that he’s not as great as he had always thought. His suburban daydream is thrown away, like one of the many half-eaten Adventureland corn dogs.
In the role of James, Eisenberg is excellent. While his performance in “The Squid and the Whale” was a terrific lead debut, like James, he is finally maturing as an actor. His naïveté displayed in “Adventureland” is sensational, and Eisenberg is quietly joining the ranks of a new underground of twentysomething indie actors, and has a lot more potential for future films.
The supporting cast is also superb. Stewart, who has already achieved Hollywood status with last year’s hit “Twilight,” does an excellent job in portraying Em’s personal struggles. Also impressive is Reynolds, who, after being typecast in the past few years (he’s often played the same character since “Van Wilder”), shows a vulnerable side.
Although the film is unlike “Superbad,” it still packs, albeit more subtly, a comic punch due to its skilled comic relief. Hader and Wiig, two current cast members of “Saturday Night Live,” are hilarious in their roles as the eccentric carnival owners. However, the most memorable performance in the film comes from Starr, who portrays the dorky Joel as a layered, tragic character. In addition to the depth of the character, Starr utilizes terrific comic timing, often stealing many scenes with his amusing one-liners. In one particular scene, Joel is operating a game in which guests can attempt to throw a baseball to knock off hats worn by rotating mannequins. The game is fixed, of course, and when the guest fails – even after a direct shot – he protests that Joel is cheating to which the sardonic operator retorts, “Yet his chapeau remains!”
While the film does have its comic moments, it really works best in the coming-of-age genre. Unfortunately, “Adventureland” has been heavily advertised as a teen sex romp in the vein of its more conventionally comedic predecessor. As for Mottola, his next project is the much anticipated reteaming of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” fame) in the comedy tentatively titled “Paul.” Whether you’re looking for a few laughs, or just a nice little nostalgic trip – a trip to “Adventureland” is certainly worth the price of admission. Just don’t eat the corn dogs.