WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010. I applaud Eddie Pence for featuring this as a Video Vault selection on “The Ralph Report.”
It’s always those low paying jobs you had as a teenager during the summer months which helped mold you into the person you are today. It sucks how it takes you another decade or so to realize this upon closer reflection. Being there at the cash register, ringing up orders for customers in the real world, this all shows you things people they don’t teach you in high school or college. So yes, even those cumbersome jobs I had such as cutting the guts out of fish, teaching little kids how NOT to fish (and they still didn’t listen to me), shoveling popcorn constantly to where I came home reeking of it, and selling overpriced drinks at the movie theater (because that’s where they get their profit from folks) made me wise up to things which would eventually benefit me later in life. It also taught me how to take control and responsibility for my life. Still, it would have been nice if they paid me more an hour. Minimum wage was around four dollars back then. I wouldn’t be able to live on that today.
“Adventureland” follows the exploits of James Brennan who is forced to take a summer job upon graduating from Oberlin College. His dad just got laid off to where neither of his parents will be able to support him financially either for the summer vacation in Europe he was hoping to take, or for his first year at Columbia College where he was planning to study journalism. Despite gloating over the great vacation he cannot go on now, James applies for different jobs around his hometown, but even his impressive transcript from Oberlin can’t land him a decent paying job. Adventureland Park, however, is hiring just about anyone with a pulse who fills out an application. Heck, I bet they even hire people they call the cops on! James tries to get a ride operator position, but managers Bobby and Paulette (played by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) are convinced he is more of a games person, so he unenthusiastically takes on the job only out of a financial need.
This is one of those movies which unfortunately got lost in the shuffle due in part to Miramax’s promoting it in the wrong way. The posters kept screaming out how it was from the director of “Superbad,” Greg Mottola. But despite the fact both movies have the same director, they are very different from one another. While “Superbad” was a broadly comic farce (one of the most gut-bustlingly hilarious ones from this past decade might I add), “Adventureland” is more of a serio-comic story and one of the more realistic coming of age movies I have seen in a while. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very funny moments to be found here, but you really can’t walk into this movie expecting another “Superbad.” If you do, you will be disappointed for all the wrong reasons.
The Adventureland Park itself is like one of those travelling carnivals you see come into town once or twice a year. You know, the ones with those rides which are in a constant state of disrepair which no cleverness can ever hide. The games they have like the ring toss and dart throwing are all designed to be unwinnable. This doesn’t stop people from still paying to play them though, hence the profit. Plus, like all amusement parks, they play the same damn songs over and over to where the employees are driven to insanity. I remember working at a park like this once, and I endured the same exact daily irritations. Where James and his colleagues have to listen to Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” every other five minutes, we kept getting subjected to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers… Well actually, I do like Tom Petty, but I just realized I don’t listen to him as much as I used to.
I love how “Adventureland” gets all the specific details down to where it resembles just about any job I could have had as a youth. I actually worked at Disneyland for a couple of years myself, and while Adventureland is a pale imitation of it, many of the same rules I lived under were reflected by the park employees here. What this park has over that corporate monolith, however, is that the rules are much looser, and the working environment is nowhere as stressful.
Jesse Eisenberg plays James Brennan, and right now he is going through that Michael Cera phase of playing the young adult who is not always of sure of what he is supposed to say, think or do most of the time. He is best known for starring in “Zombieland” opposite Woody Harrelson or from “The Squid & The Whale” where he held his own opposite the great Jeff Daniels. Eisenberg is perfect as James in how he finds things to savor at Adventureland even though he would rather be vacationing in Europe. He never overplays or underplays the part to where he becomes ingratiating to watch. Somehow, this actor finds the perfect note to play James to where we like this guy and want to follow him on his post-graduate summer from start to finish.
The other big star here is Kristen Stewart who we all know of course from those darn “Twilight” movies. I haven’t seen any of them but, from what I have been told, I haven’t missed much. My friends keep telling me Stewart cannot act and how she looks all vacant whenever she is onscreen. Well, they didn’t check her out in “Adventureland” because her talent really shines through. Her character of Emily Lewin is the most complex here as she is dealing with a lot of problems which make her yearn for an escape out of town. Emily’s dad is actually a rich lawyer whom she resents for remarrying so soon to a woman she cannot stand. She really doesn’t need to work a part time job, but she does so just to get out of the house. Her methods of escape end up getting her into a relationship with Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a married man who also works at the park.
Stewart does great work in portraying a character who yearns to be with someone who really sees her for who she is, but ends up running away from that particular someone when she becomes seriously afraid of messing everything up. You care about Emily because we can all relate to being confused about our place in life and of wanting to escape an environment which feels too confining. As a teenager, you can really feel like a prisoner in your hometown, especially if you don’t have a driver’s license. There are only so many places you can go to, and there is a strong need to break the boundaries holding you back. Stewart and the rest of the cast really show this throughout.
Another actor I want to give a lot of credit to is Martin Starr who plays Joel, the sarcastic co-worker who shows James around the park and makes him see how everything works. Starr has an amazingly dry sense of humor which has served him very well ever since appeared on the depressingly short-lived show “Freaks & Geeks.” This role is perfect for him as he embodies the antisocial misfit we remember from school, and who proves to be far more interesting than the jocks who were the stars on campus. Starr also gives his role an unexpected depth as we see him getting involved with a girl who ends up thoughtlessly rejecting not for who he is, but of what she and her family sees him as. It’s one of the film’s most honestly painful moments which rings true in ways too real to discuss openly.
And, of course, I can never get enough of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, some of the funniest people working today on “Saturday Night Live.” They are great together as the managers of this barely average amusement park and provide some of the biggest laughs as they take care of business as professionally as they can. Just make sure not to litter around Hader’s character because this will set his fuse off almost immediately,
With “Adventureland,” Mottola really captures how those jobs we worked for little money growing up toughened us up and helped in our evolution. I think it will be seen in the future as one of the most vastly underrated coming of age movies ever. It deals with the painful truths of growing up, and of experiences we had which molded the way we think and acted from there. Hopefully it will find the audience it deserves on cable and physical media. And for those of you who still think Kristen Stewart cannot act, get a clue, please.
* * * ½ out of * * * *