Fresh off helping deliver a hit with Superbad, writer-director Greg Mottola returns to the big screen with his first original script since his 1997 debut, The Daytrippers. Adventureland is rooted in autobiographical torture (Mottola worked at a Long Island amusement park while attending Columbia University), a fact that comes through in the winning construction of the movie’s idiosyncratic, slightly off-kilter tone. Even if he’s unable to wrangle the otherwise lovely and charming Kristen Stewart‘s eyes-askance lip-nibbling, or bring Jesse Eisenberg’s mannered tics fully under control, Mottola has a keen sense of detail, a deft touch with dialogue and smart taste in the casting of myriad supporting players, and these make for a mostly winning film.
It’s the summer of 1987, and James Brennan (Eisenberg, above left), an uptight comparative literature grad from Oberlin, can’t wait to embark on his dream tour of Europe with his best friend. But when his parents renege on the trip’s subsidization, James has little choice but to get a job, and spend his last summer before grad school at a seasonal amusement park operated by a loopy young married couple (Saturday Night Live‘s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig).
Forget about German beer and reefer-infused philosophical discussions, museum wanderings and pliable French girls — James’ summer will now be defined by screaming kids high on cotton candy, soused patrons scheming to score giant stuffed pandas and an old elementary school acquaintance, Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), who’s always running around trying to punch him in the balls. Lucky for James, he makes a quick friend in Joel Schiffman (Martin Starr), a droll, pipe-smoking game booth worker who helps initiate James into the absurd conventions and rituals of theme park life, and also gets off the movie’s best line, checking out the sway of a girl’s hips from afar: “Her ass is the platonic ideal — a higher truth. I’m telling you, I’ve had dreams about that diamond-shaped portal.”
James also finds an older mentor — and, more complicatedly, a potential romantic rival — in the park’s maintenance guy, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a local heartthrob due to the rumor that he once jammed with Lou Reed. And yes, James even inches closer to losing his virginity, discovering love — or at least highly concentrated lust — in the form of two co-workers, the captivating if slightly withdrawn Em Lewin (Stewart, above right) and dance-happy, carefree Lisa P (The Invisible‘s Margarita Levieva).
One of the more intriguing elements of the film — something hinted at and flirted with in the script, but never fully and explicitly embraced, especially by the actors — is the sense that it’s an exploration of Ms. Right Now vs. Ms. Right Right Now, if that makes sense. As appealing and largely engaging as it is on the surface, Adventureland could have struck an even deeper and more thrillingly subversive chord by tapping into the idea of one (smart) kid’s randy summer in heat — the notion of a young, sensitive guy’s quest to unburden himself of his virginity while still sealing the deal with someone who he can hold a conversation with after the fact.
The product of a warped home life with a recently deceased mother and an even more recently remarried dad, Em is a hot, vulnerable mess, which comes through in her serial acting out with Connell. Other than the fact that they both seem to be generationally restless, pointed toward New York City and of above-average intelligence, though, there’s little that realistically binds together James and Em. Even Mottola seems bored with their interactions, sticking them together and pulling them apart in a somewhat arbitrary fashion that gives the movie a fitful rhythm. These two don’t seem like a match made forever, basically. Unfortunately, Adventureland never wholly digs into that potentially provocative mutual-use premise, and Eisenberg’s Woody Allen-lite shtick isn’t hormonally charged enough to match James’ predicament. In the end, though, all this criticism is relative to what Adventureland gets right, which is a lot. With its easygoing, lived-in charms and nice supporting performances, certainly there’s a lot more good than not in the movie. It’d be an entirely suitable flick to lose your teen/twentysomething coming-of-age cherry to, in other words.
On DVD, the single-disc version of the film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and comes with motion-animated menus and a so-so slate of supplemental material. Kicking things off is a 16-minute making-of featurette in which producers Ted Hope and Anne Carey speak with effusive praise of Kennywood, the site of the production’s on-location shooting, and one of two amusement parks on the National Registry of Historic Places. Other cast and crew sit for interviews as well, and Starr, paired with Stewart, talks with a true wallflower’s painful lack of self-regard about feeling sorry for the actress who had to make out with him in the movie. There’s also a feature-length audio commentary track with Mottola and Eisenberg, and three deleted scenes , which spotlight drunken mother and angry grandfather park patrons, and showcase Wiig’s gift with deadpan delivery in such scene-capping dialogue tidbits as, “It’s Sunday — I don’t think the police are open.” Previews for Mike Judge’s forthcoming Extract and other movies round out the material. There’s also apparently a double-disc version of the movie available, on Blu-ray as well as regular DVD, so presumably the slate of bonus material on those is a bit more substantive. B+ (Movie) C+ (Disc)