Adventureland (2009)

Adventureland first published by EyeforFilm

Adventureland begins at a transitional point in its protagonist’s life. At a student party in 1987, 22-year-old James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is celebrating his graduation, and is in the process of being dumped by his girlfriend – but at the same time he is looking forward to a ‘transformative’ summer Euro-tour with his friend Eric (Michael Zegen), and to studying journalism in Grad School at Columbia when he gets back. Oh, and James is a virgin, meaning that, even as several doors are closing in his life, there is still at least one left to be opened.

All this may sound like the set-up for a crass student roadtrip movie, as well as for a rose-tinted (or cringe-tinged) slice of voguish Eighties nostalgia, but the truth is rather different. Here reality takes the form of hard Reaganomics, leading to the demotion of James’ father (Jack Gilpin) and the downsizing of James’ own dreams, as the sensitive romantic is faced with the necessity of staying home in Pittsburgh and getting a summer job if he is to afford the apartment rent for his future studies in New York. After discovering that his literature degree amounts to little in the world of work, James finally turns to a minimum-wage job at local downscale amusement park Adventureland.

At this ‘fun-tastic’ venue, amid the rigged games, vomit-covered rides and suspicious-smelling corndogs, James discovers a community of similar misfits, losers and outcasts from Yuppie-dom. There’s Joel Schiffman (Martin Starr), a pipe-smoking, impoverished ‘pragmatic nihilist’ who is majoring in Slavonic literature while moonlighting as “cabbie, ride operator, marijuana delivery guy”. Or Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart), who works at the park to escape her troubled homelife. Or Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), an idiotic eternal child (in a sweatband) who also happens to be James’ next-door neighbour (“he used to be my best friend – and then I turned four”). Or manager Bobby (Bill Hader) and his girlfriend Paulette (Kristen Wiig), who go to manic lengths to keep their beloved park ticking over with next to no money. Or Lisa P (Margerita Levieva), the unflappable Catholic shit-stirrer whose arse is “the Platonic ideal”. Or maintenance man Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds) who, milking to the full the story that his rock band once jammed with Lou Reed, is the closest thing that Adventureland has to a living legend (and a permanent fixture). James is quick to fall for Em, but she is already having an illicit affair with older, married Connell, and in the love triangle that emerges, some characters (if not all) will learn to grow up and move on.

Watch the trailer for Adventureland, and you might be expecting an outrageous gross-out flick akin to the saucy rites of passage from such Eighties sex comedies as Porkys (1982), Zapped! (1983) and Screwballs (1983). In fact what you will get is far closer to the character-driven drama of a John Hughes film, with all the broader laughs serving as a perfectly balanced sideshow to the more restrained main event. Drawing from his own experiences working at a Long Island amusement park during his student days in the late 1980s, writer/director Greg Mottola (The Day TrippersSuperbad) unfolds his story with astonishing understatement. If James is a virgin, he is pursuing love rather than fleeting sex – and if he is caught (twice) with a ‘boner’, the offending bulge is never actually shown. If Mike Connell and Lisa P are erotic rivals, they are humanised rather than demonised. And if life is a bit like a roller-coaster, no one ever – ever – comes out and says as much.

At its core, Adventureland is a surprisingly sweet and tender coming-of-age romance, peopled with (mostly) intelligent characters trapped in utterly believable situations that are shown warts and all, but with sympathy rather than contempt. The Eighties setting feels lived in rather than a mere opportunity for the sort of nostalgic wallowing/distanced ridicule that blighted The Wedding Singer (1998), and the main players are as aware as the viewers of the inglorious naffness of their circumstances. In one key scene, James says he would rather stick an icepick into his ears than have to hear one more time Falco’s ubiquitous rock anthem Rock Me Amadeus (played on repeat through the park’s loudspeaker system).

Everywhere else, though, the soundtrack is key to the film’s carefully modulated sense of time and place, interweaving an eclectic compilation tape of Eighties pop with a new score by Yo La Tengo (who have themselves been playing since the Eighties). It is one of those rare music mixes where the songs, for all their familiarity, feel as though they were written specifically with the scenarios of this film in mind. INXS’ Don’t Change has never sounded better, and will have many viewers staying behind all the way through the final credit crawl.

Add to this some winningly low-key performances, a slacker sensibility that refuses to subscribe to the American Dream and some genuine laughs, and you have a film that feels both wise and real, and that might just make you wish you were young all over again – not out of some misplaced love of the Eighties, but rather for the thrill of having the rest of your life still ahead of you.

© Anton Bitel