Adventureland loves the ’80s

Adventureland loves the ’80s

About that title: Yeah, that’s sort of a joke. But is it being a joke also an excuse for the new slice-of-life, coming-of-age, your-hyphenate-here comedy from Superbad writer-director Greg Mottola to lack a real sense of adventure? Well, conventionality has its charms, too.

Amusement rides? Jesse Eisenberg and Martin Starr fight job apathy in Adventureland.

It’s suburban Pittsburgh in the summer of 1987, and James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just finished college. Up next, he figures, will be a jaunt to Europe, then grad school in New York. James is bright and self-possessed, and he has designs to become a globe-trotting literary journalist, or at least a moderately important uptight intellectual. (Watch how swiftly Eisenberg works in a shrewd nod to vintage Woody Allen.)

But it turns out that his parents can’t afford that, so right now James needs a summer job. Of course, he doesn’t have much relevant work experience. As he astutely explains, “Unless someone wants help restoring a fresco, I’m fucked.” Actually, James doesn’t have much experience with anything at all. But that’s just what Adventureland is here for.  

Adventureland is the vaguely seedy local amusement park where young people’s futures come to die, and where James gets to man a game booth for minimum wage. As mandated by his boss (a highly dorkified Bill Hader, with Kristen Wiig as his loyal assistant and wife), James’ job is to tantalize occasional customers with the chance to win a “giant-ass stuffed panda” while taking steps to be sure they don’t. He’d hoped to work on one of the rides, but such is life.

Although awkward in nearly any situation, James makes friends easily enough. For one thing, he always seems to have some weed on hand. Mostly, though, it’s that he finds a few kindred spirits in the park’s coterie of payrolled misfits—particularly Joel (Martin Starr), a jaded Gogol-reading regular, and Em (Kristen Stewart), a sexily sullen girl with a screwed-up family life. Em’s of special interest, in fact, but once again James comes up against that experience problem.

For advice, he consults Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the slightly older park handyman who also happens to be a rock ’n’ roll legend, on account of once reportedly having jammed with Lou Reed. Well, whether it’s by virtue of some unspoken carnie code or just the momentum of Mottola’s script, not everything is as it seems in Adventureland. Complications will ensue.  

Scored by choice cuts of historically appropriate music, James will endure his service-industry ennui and romantic upheavals, not to mention the encroaching yuppie menace, and come to test his new theory that “you can’t just avoid everybody you screw up with.”

To these ends, the movie is well cast. Stewart suffices, Eisenberg and Starr give better than they get, and there’s something almost uncomfortably just-right about Reynolds as a fading poseur of minimal self-awareness. Adventureland (the film), like Adventureland (the place), is essentially one big interlude—not a bad way to pass the time, as long as you know you’ll eventually get out.