Back in the day, I spent part of every summer in the vicinity of the Seaside Heights amusement park on the Jersey Shore. The log flume, the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Himalaya ride…magic. The fried and frozen food was to die (and it may kill me yet). If I’d kept all those quarters and dollars spent trying to win tapes, CDs, and stuffed animals I’d be in the chips today. But I wouldn’t trade the fun I had with my family on those vacations for anything, and I look forward to taking my daughter someday (mom will however have to escort her on the rollercoasters; dad’s always been kind of a wuss in that regard).
I always thought it would be cool to run the water balloon races or activate the spinning wheels, all while breathlessly announcing the action. But according to Adventureland, which bows on DVD today, I had it wrong. The rides are where the heat is; the games are for losers, a half-step up from the dunking booth geeks. It’s this ninth circle of hell that James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is stuck in when his parents’ drastically changed financial picture forces him to abandon a pre-grad school trip to Europe and get a job at Adventureland, the local park in his native Pittsburgh.
Writer/director Greg Mottola based the film on his own late-blooming coming-of-age misery, and set it in the summer of 1987. James is a virgin, and awkward around the ladies, but his clumsy honesty makes him a better-than-usual catch for Em (Kristen Stewart), who rescues him from an angry customer. (James has to give up an outsized panda, the sort of trophy I once lusted after, violating the cardinal rule of Bill Hader’s rabidly officious park manager.) James’ other asset is a steady supply of low-grade pot, which he doles out to some of Adventureland’s other staff misfits. These include the chronically sarcastic Joel (Martin Starr), the overgrown adolescent Frigo (Matt Bush), and the sexy Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), who shocks James by asking him out on a date. James is wise to have another possible girlfriend in reserve, as the insecure Em is under the spell of Adventureland heartthrob Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who spins tales of having played with Lou Reed and doesn’t let his marriage get in the way of a good time.
Mottola, who directed the excellent independent comedy The Daytrippers in 1996, pulled a Kubrick before returning with the raunchy hit Superbad a couple of years ago. Stronger on smiles than laughs, maybe autobiography got in the way of a good time on Adventureland—it’s mopey in places, a John Hughes movie on downers. Mottola filled in his resume by directing episodes of Arrested Development, and seems to have directed Eisenberg (the star of another distinguished indie, The Squid and the Whale) to channel Michael Cera, the reigning prince of nervously self-conscious bumbling—a shtick that was fresh in Superbad but is already frayed after repeated use and mimicking. More drained than in Twilight, where she had the excuse of vampire co-stars, Stewart is prettily morose and weather-beaten. My heart doesn’t race when a movie couple is bound by a shared world-weariness at the age of 21.
Except for the stock characters portrayed by SNL strays Hader and Kristen Wiig everyone underplays, even Reynolds in what’s usually the flashy part of the charming bastard who’s both a help and a hindrance to the lead. Mottola’s sincerity and even-handedness is admirable but misplaced—it’s one of those movies I couldn’t get into but can’t really knock, either. What Adventureland needed was a McLovin to shake things up.
Mottola and Eisenberg loosen up on the commentary track, which is at its most engaging when they concentrate on one of Adventureland’s strongest assets—its 41 songs, rich in period gems that would fuel a month of Soundtrack Saturdays. (Only 14 are on the CD, so get crackin’, Ms. Stitzel.) Mottola wrote the film with specific songs in mind, like INXS’ “Don’t Change,” and had the castmembers listen to them. Some were unfamiliar to the 25-year-old Eisenberg, and the 46-year-old Mottola’s describing what The Smiths, Yo La Tengo, and The Replacements meant to him in a difficult period in his life is the purest kind of generational bonding. The rest of the “unrated” special features on the standard DVD viewed, including a making-of and deleted scenes, are a carny hustle, with nothing that goes beyond the film’s R rating. I would have preferred an offer good for a free corndog at the amusement park nearest me.
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