Eugene Weekly : Movies : 4.9.09


The Best Worst Job Ever
Don’t eat the corn dogs
by Molly Templeton

ADVENTURELAND: Written and directed by Greg Mottola. Cinematography, Terry Stacey. Editor, Anne McCabe. Music by Yo La Tengo. Music supervisor, Tracy McKnight. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds and Martin Starr. Miramax, 2009. R. 107 min.

Jesse Eisenberg and Martin Starr in Adventureland

Like pretty much everything in writer-director Greg Mottola (Superbad)’s semi-autobiographical new film, there’s a certain wry irony in the name Adventureland. Adventureland, in the film, is a slightly crumbly amusement park in Pittsburgh, full of disgruntled employees, puking kids and local toughs who might reach for a knife if denied a giant-ass panda. Only a very few people could be expected to find adventure here — fairly small children, perhaps, or early twentysomethings whose minds are rather like those of small children thanks to some special cookies.

But of course there are plenty of adventures in Adventureland for James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, who sounds a little like Michael Cera and looks a little like Andy Samberg), a recent college graduate whose post-collegiate plans have been put on hold by his parents’ money problems. James doesn’t get to go to Europe; he gets to go home to Pittsburgh and find a job. If he can. “They don’t like people like me where I’m from!” he complains in faint terror.

Eisenberg plays James as a sweet, smart fellow whose future has, until now, been in an ongoing bubble of parental protection. It’s no surprise when he’s totally thrown by a reality in which school and vacation will no longer pay for themselves. It is a surprise — and a bummer, at least at first — when the real world initially takes the form of a job at an amusement park to which slightly off characters seem to gravitate. Besides James, a would-be travel essayist stuck running the horse-racing booth, there’s bitter, philosophical, pipe-smoking Joel (Martin Starr); local would-be rock god Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the maintenance guy; Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the resident looker; Frigo (Matt Bush), James’ childhood friend turned nemesis; and Em (Kristen Stewart), a complicated NYU student whose status-obsessed stepmother is sure she’s only working at the park to embarrass her parents. Em is brave and cautious, a young woman who throws parties while her parents are gone but doesn’t exactly have a party spirit. She’s a little dry, a little fragile, a little blunt, a little knowing; she’s a lovely foil for James. 

Adventureland plays out as a love triangle and a coming-of-age story populated with familiar character types who rarely slip into bland cliché or are coated with the too-clever gloss that stains many a teen comedy. (This is a post-collegiate comedy, sure, but the characters actually look their ages, which means they look like the teenagers in most films). But Adventureland is only part comedy. The laughs are there, though subtler and gentler than you might expect, but this film has a sweetness that comes from James — the sort of bookish, too-honest guy who’s passed up sex thus far because he wasn’t really in love — from the soft-edged, self-aware quirks of his coworkers and from the nostalgia evoked by the ’80s setting and the impeccably chosen soundtrack, which is like a mix tape made by all the characters working together. There’s nothing glib and self-satisfied about Adventureland, in which people fucking up talk, refreshingly, like people fucking up; they can’t finish sentences, instead stammering and swearing while trying to find the right words. But each mistake eventually adds up to the small, unforgettable adventure of taking the first steps into adult life — with all the humor and horrors that attend the process.