I’d heard from many of my colleagues that Adventureland was grossly mis-represented in the marketing for the movie. Instead of a sophomoric raunch comedy, the movie is more of a coming of age story, with a decent emotional core to it. I didn’t realize the weight of that until I sat down to watch the movie myself and realized just how right those other critics were. Do not approach this movie expecting another Superbad or . This is a much more soulful experience, exploring just how deeply emotions can mess with humans, as well as depicting a crucial time in every educated person’s life – a coming of age when they realize how little formal education prepared them for the experiences of the real world.
For James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), that reality comes as he prepares for grad school, only to find out that his dad has changed jobs, resulting in a loss of income for the family. No longer able to join his friends for a European excursion, James has to pick up a summer job to help pay for his future educational plans. With no actual work experience, James only manages to land a job at the local carnival, Adventureland, and he can’t even get a job there that he likes, being relegated to games instead of rides. Despite being a crummy job that doesn’t pay well, James winds up with a wealth of experience from his time at Adventureland, learning a little bit about people and a lot about love.
Adventureland is a well executed period piece, using the late ‘80s as a setting, but not turning to every cliché in order to execute that. So many projects set in the ‘80s feel like they have to overwhelm the viewer with references to Swatches and parachute pants and other icons of the era. This is simply a story set in the ‘80s, with a particularly well designed soundtrack representative of the time. It’s a shame that pulling off that setting is a notable accomplishment because of other movies, but it makes Adventureland even more impressive for doing it well.
Instead of focusing so heavily on the ‘80s setting, Adventureland is a solidly character driven story. Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of James is perfect in this movie. Frequently, his slightly-neurotic intellectual character feels like Eisenberg is channeling a young Woody Allen, although it’s never an exaggeration of that archetype. Eisenberg feels natural in the role, playing a character who doesn’t quite fit into the world he’s been thrust in, but wants to try to understand it none the less.
Equally talented performances come from a lot of the cast. Kristen Stewart, best known for Twlight these days, plays the severely emotionally damaged Em, who James comes to care for. Although she’s not glamorous, Stewart brings a charm to the character that makes it easy to see why she becomes the object of so many people’s affections (although I wanted to shove a headband or ponytail holder in her hand so she’s stop messing with her hair so frequently). Martin Star, plays Joel, an even bigger intellectual type than James, which helps give balance to the main character by showing that, although he is socially awkward in a setting like Adventureland, he adapts to the social environment a bit better than his pipe-smoking associate. Margarita Levieva shows what an ‘80s Paris Hilton predecessor would be like as the vapid Lisa P., the hottie everyone wants to be with.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention site-favorite Ryan Reynolds, whose role in the movie is brief, but essential. Reynolds plays Connell, the amusement park’s repair man, who doubles as a musician with impressive stories about the time he jammed with Lou Reed. Connell is the big man of the theme park, the character everyone looks up to, but it’s immediately evident that his glory days aren’t what they seem. Romantically a rival for James, Connell is also representative of a potential future, where someone’s promise and potential is shoved aside in order to be the proverbial big fish in a little pond.
Writer/director Greg Mottola weaves a very interesting coming of age story with Adventureland, with interesting and deep characters. Mottola adds to the depth of his story by allowing so much to go unsaid on screen. Some of the pivotal character moments occur in silence, with exchanged or longing glances providing the audience with more than words could say. At the same time, certain parts of the story’s plot feel a little weak, particularly the story’s turning point, which relies on a character who can barely tie his shoe remembering something he saw in a convenient time. It’s a tenuous story development, but a minor flaw in what is otherwise an excellent story.
If you, like me, heard good things about Adventureland but didn’t give it a chance because of the studio’s marketing for the picture, check it out anyway. I cannot overstate enough the mistakes made by the studio in selling this movie to audiences. It’s a very smart, deeply soulful story with a lot of heart to it, far from the raunch comedy advertised. It’s a shame that one of 2009’s best movie offerings has been hidden so well.
On the Disc:
The Blu-ray transfer of Adventureland is a mysterious creature. Some of the movie looks beautiful, while other scenes are a bit grainy, especially nighttime scenes which carry quite a bit of video noise – something I wouldn’t expect on a Blu-ray disc. I don’t think the transfer and the Blu-ray exclusive extras really warrant getting this movie on Blu-ray over DVD. It is nice to get a digital copy of the movie packed in with the Blu-ray edition though.
Because some of Adventureland is based on Mottola’s own experiences working in the real Adventureland, the few extras that look at the making of the movie are really nice, including a production commentary with Mottolla and Eisenberg and the featurette “Just My Life: The Making of Adventureland.” An offered ability to jump to specific scenes based on the music played in the scene is also a big plus.
There are a few deleted scenes, although they aren’t much to see and are fairly obvious as to why they were trimmed out of the final movie. Mottola offers an optional commentary to explain the deleted scenes, but again, there’s not much to it.
Finally, the Blu-ray exclusive content heads to the viral side, with a “How to” from annoying character Frigo (Matt Bush) on his even more annoying character trait of punching people in the balls, a guide to style from Lisa P., and faux commercials and orientation videos for the amusement park. While all very brief, these are actually pretty entertaining, although I can’t imagine the replay value of them being all that great. Still, as extras, they are fun.
- Rafe Telsch