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Adventureland (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 25, 2023




Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader, Martin Starr, Kristen Wiig, Margarita Levieva, Josh Pais, Mary Birdsong, Kevin Breznahan, Wendie Malick, Jack Gilpin, Matt Bush and Kelsey Ford.

Screenplay by Greg Mottola.

Directed by Greg Mottola.

Distributed by Miramax Pictures.  107 minutes.  Rated R.

I had an old friend who always felt like a bit of a misfit.  He eventually ran off to become a carny at a small pier on the Jersey shore.  The guy was smart, funny, knew more about musical theater than any other straight guy I’ve ever met and was always a bit of a loner.  It always seemed like a bit of an odd move for him to just cut ties with his whole life until he told me something.  “Everywhere I go, I feel like I’m different.  At the carnival, everyone there is different.”

Carnivals and circuses have always been welcoming places for people who feel like outcasts – or even just who are trying to find their paths in life – a truth that is understood and respected by this delicately funny and observant nostalgic film.

Don’t be misled by the faux-retro poster bragging “From the director of SUPERBAD” (and obviously designed to recall that film’s retro one sheet as well.).  There are also coming attractions trailers which try to convince you that this is another wild and crazy teen comedy of that ilk.

However, while in many parts Adventureland is quite funny and sometimes rather raucous, this film is an entirely different animal – more thoughtful and low-keyed.

That is not to say that one is bad – on the contrary, both films are quite good in their own ways – it just means that they are very dissimilar.  While director Greg Mottola was behind the camera in Superbad, the film was driven more by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s screenplay.  Mottola’s direction was perfectly functional, but most any director really could have done it.

Instead of filming Rogen and Goldberg’s lives, Adventureland is a labor of love based on Mottola’s own life.  It has a lived-in, realistic vibe that lets you know that Mottola knows and loves (if perhaps grudgingly) this world and these people.

Adventureland takes place in Pittsburgh, PA in the late 80s.  James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg of The Squid and the Whale) is a recent college grad looking forward to spending the summer backpacking through Europe with his rich friend before heading off to New York for grad school at Brown.  However, it turns out that his dad has picked up a bit of a drinking problem and been demoted.  As far as his self-absorbed parents (Wendy Malick and Jack Gilpin) are concerned, less family money equals no Europe.  And probably no New York.

Suddenly, days after graduation, James has to find a summer job.  Most of the worthy gigs had been snapped up long before.  Also, with his specialized liberal arts background (he had majored in comparative literature and Renaissance studies) James suddenly realizes that he has very little in the way of real-life work experience to bring to the table.  When he consistently strikes out at even the most menial job applications, he finally agrees to take a job with his neighbor, a “frenemy” who had been his best friend in first grade but now is an annoying, bullying jerk (played by Matt Bush, the kid from the series of AT&T rollover minute commercials).

The job is working the games at a run-down local amusement park – where his job security all hinges on no one knocking the hat off the mannequin and winning the big panda bear.  (Of course, as he soon learns, most of the games are fixed to make them nearly impossible to win.)

As miserable as he is at first, he comes to enjoy life at the carnival, mostly because of the interesting and fun people he is working with.  The place is run by a way too gung-ho couple (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig of Saturday Night Live) who believe the customer is always right, but also have their employees’ back.

James is quickly befriended by Joel, a bespectacled-but-rather brilliant local kid – he reads philosophy, is a Jewish atheist, is self-conscious and shy around girls and knows he’s way too smart to be there but at the same time has no place better to go.  Joel is played by former Freaks and Geeks actor Martin Starr (who is, by the way, a dead ringer for the carny friend I mentioned earlier, both in looks and personality.).

James also befriends Mike, an older, married maintenance man who is just taking this job until his rock band takes off.  He has a reputation of a lothario, hitting on all the girls who work at the park and – because he’s married – taking them to his mom’s basement for sex.  He has become a local hero because he once did a gig with Lou Reed (though he tends to downplay the story and seems to know very little about Reed’s body of work).  Normally snarky actor Ryan Reynolds is very effective in one of the rare roles in which he downplays and shows depth of character.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a coming of age movie without a beautiful girl to shock our hero out of his doldrums, but Adventureland even puts an interesting twist on that.  Em (Kristen Stewart of Twilight) is much more worldly and smart than James – but she is stuck in an angsty affair with Mike which threatens to blow up the naturally forming bond that is slowly blooming with James.  James, too, plays with fire on the relationship, agreeing to go out with the park bombshell (Margarita Levieva) when she asks him out.

However, that all just makes Adventureland even more realistic.  Life and relationships are messy and hard.  Sometimes you just need someplace to figure it all out.  Understanding the little truths of life is where Adventureland succeeds splendidly.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: August 25, 2009.

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