Miramax // 2009 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino // August 31st, 2009
It was the worst job they ever imagined...and the best time of their lives.
Working a crappy job over the summer is something every kid should go through. Aside from giving kids a little extra dough come school time, these crappy jobs build character. Heck, just look at Greg Motolla: he was a carny one summer, and now he makes movies!
James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, The Squid and the Whale) has just graduated from college and is preparing for a summer backpacking trip across Europe and then graduate school in the fall. When his plans fall apart and his parents are unable to support him financially, James has to seek out summer employment. He quickly learns that he's simultaneously over and under qualified for every job, and is forced to work with his childhood friend, Frigo (Matt Bush), at Adventureland.
While working various carnival games, James falls in with a group of kids stuck in the rut of a suburban summer. There's Joel (Martin Starr, Freaks and Geeks), a sardonic Russian-lit major who shows James how each game is rigged; Em (Kristen Stewart, Twilight), a cool girl who saves James from getting stabbed at a ring toss game; Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), a gal who spends most of her time dancing to the music played over the park's loudspeakers; and Connell (Ryan Reynolds, The Proposal), a maintenance guy who perpetuates a legend about the time he jammed with Lou Reed. This motley crew is led by Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, SNL), a managerial couple whose style includes baseball bats, strict prize control, and laissez-faire corndog storage.
James quickly becomes entangled in the lives of all of these people, as he tries to make the best of his deteriorating summer.
Adventureland is part workplace comedy and part coming-of-age memoir. It's a chunk out of writer/director Greg Motolla's past; sure the names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent, but the film remains a very personal testament to that awkward post-college stage of life. The film was marketed as a hysterical romp akin to Motolla's previous effort, Superbad, but it's far more dramatic and melancholy than we're led to believe. In fact, they're not really similar at all.
If the movie is close to anything, it's Freaks and Geeks, which nicely blended comedy and drama about kids growing up in the 1980s (amidst a sweet soundtrack). Here, the era of big hair, ridiculous clothes, and Ronald Reagan is looked back on with a fond nostalgia, not as a joke. Motolla is subtle in his use of the era, letting his excellent soundtrack and the costumes do much of the talking. Em's Lou Reed t-shirts, Lisa P.'s outrageous dance club outfits, and the leftover 1970s cars all add up to a convincing period piece.
The park itself, played dutifully by Pittsburgh's historic Kennywood amusement park, is introduced and then fades into the background. It has plenty of cool moments and establishing shots, but Motolla mainly uses it to create a solid atmosphere; the din of rollercoasters and the out-of-focus carnival lights become a motif of the unchanging world that these characters are stuck in.
While all of the characters have their little moments in the film, the focus sticks with James and Em. Their relationship isn't typically Hollywood, or typically indie, it just feels realistic. While the third act of the film gets a little bit heavy-handed at times, the story has a great pace to it. Adventureland may be more dramatic than you'd expect, but the humor that's here is sharp, natural, and never out of place. The inclusion of two SNL vets, who steal every scene they're in, was a great move to keep things from ever getting too lugubrious.
James's character, for all he deals with in the film, could have easily become annoying in the hands of a lesser actor; however, Jesse Eisenberg does a wonderful job in making him both likable and sympathetic to the point of becoming an underdog. His attraction to Em is as odd as it is familiar; he's probably too good for her, but at the same time she's just what he needs. Kristen Stewart (who I haven't really seen since Panic Room, although I hear she's is some vampire movie nowadays) does a solid job as Em, a girl trapped in a pathetic affair with Connell, the maintenance guy. The chemistry between Em and James is great, and even when they screw up I couldn't help but root for them.
That seems to be the case with much of the supporting cast as well. For as vile and pathetic as Reynolds's Connell is, like when he seduces Em in his sick mother's basement, you can't help but feel sorry for the guy. He's trapped, like everyone else in Adventureland: Joel is trapped in a world that he's too smart and pessimistic for. Frigo is trapped in a state of stunted adolescence. Paulette and Bobby are trapped in an endless cycle of amusement park management, gluing eyes to plush bananas and yelling at litter bugs. But for as messed up as every character is, they each have a moment to make us laugh and a moment to appeal to us on a human level.
The film was made on a shoestring budget, but Motolla does an excellent job of making it look good. His direction and camera work are simple and naturalistic, and the grainy, orangish hue of the picture gives it a retro feel. The video quality on the DVD isn't the best around, but the '80s time period hides many mistakes. The sound, on the other hand, rocks, largely because of the director's meticulous soundtrack. Songs by The Replacements, Lou Reed, and Judas Priest dot the film, along with a great original theme by Yo La Tengo. Perhaps the most inspired aspect of the soundtrack is Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus," which plays in Adventureland like 20 times a day.
This single-disc version of the film comes with a handful of extra features. The commentary track with Greg Motolla and Jesse Eisenberg is by far one of the most entertaining commentaries I've heard in a while. You learn a little about the film, but the bulk of it is just wry banter and lies. There are also three brief deleted scenes with optional commentary and a standard making-of featurette. What's strange is Miramax's insistence on reminding you that these bonus features are unrated, yet there isn't anything overtly outrageous on them. Chalk another one up for hyped-up marketing for the Superbad crowd.
Adventureland may be a well crafted coming-of-age movie, but it isn't without its flaws. For me, the film was generally satisfying from a comedic standpoint, but just barely. The problem is that while the jokes flow naturally as the film carries on, the third act switches gears to full-on drama as relationships begin to break down and truths are discovered. One of the only bright spots in this depressing act is a minor character's Jack Black-style a cappella version of Rush's "Limelight." The film's final scene -- I add, sans spoiler -- also comes too abruptly for my tastes. For a movie that has grounded itself in realism for much of its runtime, the neat and tidy conclusion feels tacked on.
Much like Kennywood's (I mean, Adventureland's) wooden roller coasters, this film is a bumpy yet enjoyable ride. The film's naturalistic style and humor won me over, and the great cast really made me care about all of these very imperfect characters. Adventureland may have an unbalanced third act and a convenient ending, but the ride is worth the price of admission.
Just because this film isn't the next Superbad doesn't mean you shouldn't check it out.
Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes