Summer of 1987. Oh, these kids are my temporal peeps. That was my first summer after high school, and even though this is the first summer after undergrad for James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) in Adventureland, it feels familiar to me. Hell, writer-director Greg Mottola — Superbad filmmaker and Apatow alum — based his script on his own experiences at the real Adventureland in Farmingdale, New York, on Long Island, not far from where I grew up, mostly. So there’s a vibe that feels real to me.
I like James. A lot. Eisenberg (The Hunting Party, The Village) has a quirky, sensitive cool that distinguishes him from the slew of teen or almost-teen movie ranks of the moment (Eisenberg is 25, in fact). He takes a job at the titular suburban Pittsburgh amusement park because he’s gotta make some dough for grad school — Columbia Journalism! — in the fall, since Mom and Dad have hit some rough economic times and won’t be able to help him out like they’d planned. (Tell me that don’t sound like the wheel of history comin’ round again quarter of a century on: the realities of the late 80s Reagan recession sound awfully familiar in the early days of the Great Recession.) But he doesn’t belong there. It’s just that his degree in Renaissance literature or whatever makes him utterly useless in a world that does not value such things.
Oh, but James is a sweetie, thanks to Eisenberg and Mottola’s frequently lovely script: he reads poetry and snarks about the “criminal abuse of the laws of perspective” and cracks gently bookish wit, and he earns mostly nothing but blank stares in return when what he seeks is a soulmate. My heart broke for James more than once, this romantic stuck in the smallness of the suburbs, where all the games are fixed, and I don’t just mean the ones on the midway at Adventureland. He is dedicated to finding a bit of spirit and beauty and art and true love amid the vomit and the shit and the calculated inebriation — you know, the kind that helps you get through it all — of real, dull, tedious life.
And I appreciate — hell, I love — that Mottola has taken the trappings of the juvenile grossout comedy the likes of which are clogging our multiplexes these days, and said, “Look, it’s true that our days are full of shit and vomit and sadness and people trying to pretend they don’t see that and people trying to cover up the pain with random sex and overdoing the drugs and booze, but it’s possible to tell a story about that without celebrating it.” And Mottola does that, avoids the celebration without avoiding the harsh reality, with his tale of James, who’s still trying to figure out the sex thing and the love thing — he doesn’t want to “just fuck” some girl “anyway,” even if he’s not in love with her: he wants an emotional connection. And the fact that that reality of many, maybe most men’s lives is so often ignored by these kinds of films makes this seem more satisfying here than it probably should. There’s a genuine, honest sincerity to James’s fumblings with fellow Adventureland employee Em, who’s got issues of her own, and Kristen Stewart (Twilight, Jumper), in the role, is an elegant foil and match for James — for all her youth (Stewart is only 19), she has an unexpectedly gritty yet open edge.
Still, for all the plot clichés Adventureland avoids — not to mention all the retro mockery it refuses to indulge in — it never truly catches fire. I like James and Em and their friends — Martin Starr (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Knocked Up) as the pipe-smoking literary nerd Joel is particularly riveting, and refreshingly resistant to stereotyping — but I wish I liked their story more. I wish I didn’t feel like I’d seen it a hundred times before.