There’s a potent movie somewhere in Adventureland and all of it just didn’t make it to the screen. While there’s plenty to enjoy here, there’s a sense that punches are pulled, that things only got halfway to a bigger destination.
James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is a nebbishy college grad looking forward to a summer in Europe and then heading to Columbia for grad school. But when his dad gets demoted, all the funds for these excursions disappear and James ends up getting a job at a crappy amusement park for the summer. There he meets a whole host of oddities – Paulette (Kristen Wiig) and Bobby (Bill Hader), his bosses. Nerdy Joel (Martin Starr), amped Frigo (Matt Bush), sexy Lisa P (Margarita Levieva) and full-of-himself Connell (Ryan Reynolds). And of course he meets Em (Kristen Stewart), who might as well have a halo around her because, let’s face it, these two are gonna fall stupid in love.
James is sure awkward for a college graduate – he can barely spit out a sentence around anyone without immediately qualifying it with another sentence. Yet and still, Em seems enamored of him, most likely because he’s such an unadulterated nice guy. The contrast between him and her regular booty caller, the already-married Connell, is blinding.
They fumble and stumble their way toward some sort of romantic understanding amidst hijinks at Adventureland – the funniest of which are handled by Hader and Wiig, who seem to be taking part in an out and out comedy and who provide the only honest gutbusters. The movie swings from serious to ironic smirks for a while, punctuated by occasional sweetness. And then the best scene in the movie happens and leaves the rest of the story in its shadow:
James and Em have hung out a bit but they haven’t taken things as far as they eventually might. They’re at the fairgrounds on the 4th of July and fireworks start up. Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” fades in. Brennan sits down beside Em to watch the fireworks – nothing cuddly, but close enough that, ya know, there’s something there. The whole moment, considering the setting, the characters, the place in the story – it’s perfect.
And then – to make it even more perfect – there’s a look from co-worker Joel (Martin Starr) in the background that says he’s obviously getting left out of this romantic world. Maybe he’s got a thing for Em, too? Maybe it’s about his entire – albeit short – life of romantic failure? Yes and probably yes. Everybody’s been one of these three people at some point in their lives. It’s powerful for an early scene and notable for it’s complete lack of babbling from James or wisecracks from anyone else. Quiet and assured.
But this tone is soon left behind in order to tell a plot-ier story that ends not where the summer romances of young people ever actually end, but instead where Hollywood romances do. Everything is wrapped up nicely – and really, it’s not as if Adventureland needed a downer ending – but the honesty of the fireworks scene might’ve taken this to another place, made it a must see.
Also, for a movie set in such a specific place and time – Pittsburgh, 1987 – there’s not much attention to detail besides the cars (love Em’s Gremlin) and the music (admittedly well thought out, even the inclusion of Lou Reed stuff). Why set this amusement park in Pittsburgh? Mottola’s real life park was in Long Island. And not a single character here sounds like they’re from Pittsburgh. In such a working class park, not a single person is gonna spout an ‘inat’ or a ‘warsh’ or something? C’mon. And 1987? The only time I saw a girl with straight hair in 1987 was on Hippie Day at school and it was kind of a joke that she had no poof on the front of her head. Really – look at Reynolds, Eisenberg and Stewart on the DVD cover. Is there anything to suggest this isn’t set in present day?
Is it a straight forward comedy or slice of life? It’s a little of both and the two flavors don’t mix well. Maybe this is a pitfall of trying to tell your own story? Without that flow between these two modes, the power the ending might’ve had is dissipated. It never achieves the you are there-ness of Dazed and Confused or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, nor the potential lunacy of whatever awesome movie Hader and Wiig are acting in.
Based on that fireworks scene, though, I wouldn’t complain if Mottola kept taking stabs at this until he got it perfect.
The film is presented in a fairly grainy 1.85:1 1080p that fits the mostly nostalgic mood. Audio is 5.1 DTS-HD (48Hz / 24bit) in English and 5.1 Dolby Digital in French.
Just My Life: The Making of Adventureland – Though mostly a this-was-the-greatest-time-of-my-life piece, there are a few bits worth watching, like Martin Starr talking about his make out scene. (16:31)
Director & Cast Commentary – Writer/Director Greg Mottola and star Jesse Eisenberg talk over the whole movie.
Deleted Scenes – This is pretty much all Hader and Wiig material and it leaves you wanting more. (2:27)
Frigo’s Ball Taps – Though some bits are too stagey to get a laugh, this is the funniest thing on the whole disc, mostly thanks to Matt Bush’s enthusiasm where it comes to punching people in the balls. (2:34)
Lisa P’s Guide to Style – The character of Lisa P provides some very ’80s fashion tips. (2:08)
Welcome to Adventureland – Two sharp fake commercials and two fake employee films for Adventureland. (5:39)
Neither a slice of mid-’80s life nor a straight-forward comedy, Adventureland is a good movie straining for greatness, but not quite making it.
Miramax Films presents Adventureland. Directed by: Greg Mottola. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Margarita Levieva, Ryan Reynolds. Written by: Greg Mottola Running time: 107 min. Rating: R. Released on DVD: August 25, 2009. Available at Amazon.com
Tags: Adventureland, Bill Hader, Greg Mottola, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Kristen Wiig, Miramax Films, Ryan Reynolds