Ah, the ’80s. Who doesn’t miss the hair, the fashion sense, the music, and the simpler times? James (Jesse Eisenberg) might disagree with that last part, since he’s just graduating college in 1987 and probably finds it hard to believe that he’ll ever look back on his first summer out of school with longing. Instead of backpacking through Europe and then moving to the Big Apple, he’ll be working a games booth at Adventureland, a cheesy, scheming amusement park.
As James quickly learns, life at Adventureland is run by a set of rules all its own and he’s breaking all of them: Working a ride is better than working a game booth; don’t let anyone win a giant-ass panda; and never, under any circumstances, eat the corn dogs.
Of course, in any coming-of-age story there has to be a girl, and James’ girl is Em (Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart), who is beautiful yet troubled and harboring a few secrets. As James falls for her, she sends him one mixed signal after another: a true rite of passage for the boy becoming a man. Maybe mentoring James or maybe sabotaging him is park handyman Mike (Ryan Reynolds), who has a new favorite ride every summer, if you get my drift. Is he the man James aspires to be, or the loser James might turn out to be?
As a metaphor that’s not subtle, but appropriate, James’ best friend from elementary school likes to punch him in the balls. Yet despite all of James’ angst, Adventureland contains such a sense of nostalgia that you have to wonder how much writer and director Greg Mottola (Superbad) is trying to reconnect with his youth. It’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist set 20 years ago, back when it would have been Nick and Norah’s Infinite Mix Tape. It’s an homage to those days when all you want to do is grow up, but in hindsight you’d give just about anything to go back and be able to savor the experience. Like life, Adventureland is both funny and poignant, raunchy and sweet, humorous and a little dull at times.
At first Adventureland appears to be another ”no consequences” film, like Dazed and Confused or Superbad, where kids do outrageous things but nothing bad ever happens and no one gets in trouble for staying out all night to smoke pot in an abandoned roller-coaster car. But Adventureland tries to tackle bigger themes and more adult plot lines that demand consequences be paid. Mottala doesn’t succeed at incorporating this level of maturity or sophistication into the story. The film suffers as it tries to be both carefree and meaningful, achieving neither fully, and the moment of truth is too often shied away from to ever resonate.
Even as the film struggles to secure its footing, Eisenberg stands strong in the Michael Cera part. You know the role: a slightly awkward but totally sweet and endearing kid who just wants to do the right thing. It’s refreshing to see someone other than Cera cast, and while Eisenberg doesn’t do much to move beyond what Cera has mastered in this character, he certainly holds his own.
Stewart is a little cold and distant as Em, though her role has the most depth and layers to it. She does an adequate job, but even as the movie lacks a multifaceted identity, so does Stewart. Like the carnival ride that plays the same song all summer long, she’s fairly one note. Reynolds, as the slightly older and worldlier of the Adventureland staff, is just as out of place as his character. His performance never moves beyond reciting lines while looking good.
The supporting cast does a great job as the background adults. As James’ mother, Wendie Malick dominates her scenes with great force. She’s wonderful at delivering her lines with dry humor and a ”don’t mess with me” attitude. Playing the quirky park owners, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are brilliant. Their roles are minor, but they add a wonderful level of levity and oddity to the proceedings. It’s hard to imagine any other couple creating a place like Adventureland.
The big question in Adventureland is whether James will grow up enough to start grabbing life by the balls, rather than getting repeatedly punched in them. The movie is about a summer of extremes: What was going to be the worst summer of James’ life turned out to be the best. Unfortunately, the film itself is stuck in low gear. Rather than be the best, it’s content to be average.