Andy Bockelman: ‘Adventureland’ is an emotional tilt-a-whirl
Just when you thought the 1980s teen comedy was dead, along comes a movie like “Adventureland.”
Better 20 years late than never.
Upon his college graduation in 1987, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) can’t wait to take a summer sabbatical overseas. His plans fall through, however, thanks to the recent financial downturn inflicted on his parents (Wendie Malick, Jack Gilpin), who are not only unable to afford the trip but no longer can help him pay for graduate school.
James’s worst fears are realized when, in his search for a job, he has to settle for minimum wage purgatory: hometown amusement park Adventureland, where the customers are rude, all the games are rigged and winning the coveted giant stuffed panda is about as rare as capturing a real one.
But, doing the work of a simpleton has its perks. Not having to make any effort in his job allows James the opportunity to get to know his co-worker, Em (Kristen Stewart), who may just be the girl of his dreams.
Eisenberg and Stewart make a fantastic coupling in the midst of all the young adults around them who have no direction in life, although Em is always likable, while James is thoroughly, unforgivably pretentious. Honestly, how much would you care about a kid who believes himself to be the next Charles Dickens and audibly notes his preference for Bastille Day over the Fourth of July?
There are other characters that are more bearable, though. Martin Starr gets our sympathy as James’s odd duck cohort, Joel, and Matt Bush gets laughs as fellow co-worker Tommy Frigo, the kind of testosterone-driven moron we’ve all had the misfortune of being friends with.
Ryan Reynolds fits the bill as Connell, the park’s maintenance man, who doubles as a frustrated musician, hitting on girls half his age despite being married.
Likewise, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are in fine form as park managers who care way too much about their jobs.
There is an ample blend of drama and comedy at work in writer/director Greg Mottola’s screenplay.
The “Superbad” director truly gets in touch with his young adult characters in all their telling capriciousness – seen in a surprisingly powerful rejection scene involving Joel and his summer crush, Sue, played by Ron Howard’s daughter Paige, in her film debut – and personal torment – most notably, Em’s battles with her materialistic stepmother (Mary Birdsong).
The universal language of angst is one we have all spoken, but the movie’s one big fault is that it takes it too far.
The contrast between the upbeat surroundings of Adventureland and the dismal mood of most its staff is funny at first, but by the end of the summer, enough is enough.
Still, when it works, it works, and depending on your tolerance for the people involved, maybe the whole story will congeal better.
Simply put, theme parks are not for everybody.
“Adventureland” is not as steady and circular as a well-oiled carousel but rather akin to a rickety roller coaster. Some parts will thrill while others are just painful, but as long as you reach the height requirement, you may as well take the risk.
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