Sometimes, a critic is going to connect with a movie, even one they can admit has some major problems, because it so mirrors their own expereinces. “Adventureland” may be writer/director Greg Mottola’s slightly fictional version of his own lost summer working at a theme park in 1987, but it easily could be my own lost summer working at a theme park in 1988.
Not that anything that happens to James Brennan and his fellow carnies is exclusive to the period or the location. Pretty much anyone who worked as a teenager or early twentysomething within a group of peers, be it hawking toys to park goers or selling popcorn to moviegoers or working at a fast food joint, had similar experiences with love and lust and heartbreak and sex and drugs and alcohol and rock ‘n’ roll and crazy bosses and jackass customers. And it is that universality that should help it find it audience. One did not ever have to have worked in a cubicle to find the humor in “Office Space,” and one does not need to have worked at an amusement park to find the humor here.
One cannot talk cinematic comedy in 2009 without mentioning Judd Apatow, even if, as in the case of “Adventureland,” he had nothing to do with a specific film. Apatow’s connection to “Adventureland” is that this film is being sold as being from the director of the Apatow-produced “Superbad,” which is factually correct but thematically completely off-base. Though “Superbad” was adequately directed by Mottola, the film’s success with critics and audiences showed that, like David Green Gordon with “Pineapple Express” last summer, that any director could make a successful comedy with a strong enough script and case. For Mottola and hopefully Green, their success in the Apatow universe will give them the clout for a while to bring forth more of the personal cinema both were known for before their blockbusters. In “Superbad,” Mottola tried to inject moments of warm friendship between all the moments of lunacy. “Adventureland” too has many moments of lunacy, but its a far more subtle craziness, the kind that most people deal with on a day to day basis. There is not a single moment in “Adventureland” that compares to Michael Cera’s wry take on his buddy getting a fake license that simply names him McLovin or any of McLovin’s wild antics with the two police officers. No, Mottola is far more interested in finding the humor within the pathetic existence of a young person working a minimum wage job they know is or should be below them.
And the truth of the matter is, not a whole hell of a lot really “happens” here. It’s just life, unfolding as it does one second at a time, and how this small group of people deals with it. James Brennan, subtly and expertly played by “The Squid and the Whale” star Jesse Eisenberg, finds himself in a situation that I’m sure many young adults find themselves in today (although the film was made before the current global financial crisis began): fresh out of college, discovering everything he counted on for his future has vanished when his father is unexpectedly demoted at work, and forced to take a menial job at a second-tier amusement park when he realizes his spoon-fed upper middle class existence has given him zero training in the real world. And like all good stories, discovering who is truly is in the face of unexpected change. Over the course of the summer, James strikes up a friendship with Joel (Apatow alumnus Martin Starr), who will always be a nerd no matter how hard he tries to mask, falls for the fair fellow carnie Em (“Twilight” star Kristen Stewart) while inexplicably being pursued by ride operator hottie Lisa P (Margarita Levieva from “The Invisible”), and drawn in to the strange world of the park’s maintenance guy Mark (Ryan Reynolds), who uses the self-perpetuated rumor that he once jammed with Lou Reed to score points with the more impressionable park workers, especially of the female persuasion.
Mottola’s subtle approach to the story’s humor allows us to laugh at what’s happening to James and his buddies out of familiarity. There’s no bludgeoning of the audience with audacious moments. No explosive moments where things turn from good to bad or worse in a heartbeat. No A-list actors in fat suits and bald caps blurting out expletives like machine-gun fire for no other reason than isn’t it funny to see an A-list actor in a fat suit and bald cap blurting out expletives like machine-gun fire. It’s good old-fashioned situational comedy, the kind we rarely see in cinematic today, and the film works so well because of its four main characters and the actors who play them. Eisenberg and Stewart do have good chemistry together, and it’s fun to watch them spend the summer circling each other, trying to figure out if the other person really does mean something to them. But the film really belongs to Starr and Levieva, both who gives their secondary characters far more gravitas than what was probably written or expected of them, and the film improves measurably whenever they are on screen.
But with so many secondary characters required in some sense to keep the story moving along, the film does suffer from a lack of development of these characters, all of whom are well cast, but it seems as if Mottola tried to hire good and somewhat recognizable actors to make the bridge to the audience for that connection. James’s parents and Em’s father and stepmom only have a few moments each to do their part for the sake of plot development, but that’s pretty much all they are, plot points. “Saturday Night Live” stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are the Adventureland… well, it’s never really made clear if they are the owners of the park or just the managers, but either way, neither really adds anything other than name recognition. Hader, with his unbecoming mustache, mostly sleepwalks through his moments on screen, save one mildly amusing moment where he tries to liven up a horse race-themed ball rolling game, while Wiig makes Hader look positively electrifying with another of her now-standard severely underplayed mousy performances. Of the remaining supporting cast, Reynolds does try to bring something more to his wannabe rock star small fish stuck in an even smaller fish bowl, but it’s still pretty much a throwaway characterization.
Those of us who grew up in the 1980s will no doubt be taken back down memory lane by the film’s soundtrack, with what is tantamount to one of the greatest mix tapes of that decade. When Bob Stinson’s great opening riff from “Bastards of Young” comes blaring out of the speakers at the start of the movie, any half-serious 1980s musicologist should find a smile crossing their face (because, let’s face it, you can never have enough Mats in an 80s-themed movie). And while we are subjected to some of the horrors of that musical era (Animotion, Falco, Mary Jane Girls and Whitesnake are just some of the cring-worthy artists thrown in to be cringe-worthy), that throwaway junk is more than balanced by a liberal dose of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground (which was required listening to us teens and early twentysomethings in the late 80s), plus Big Star, Husker Du, The Jesus and Mary Chain and The New York Dolls. There is little doubt many of us now fortysomethings will go home after watching the movie and hop on iTunes to make their own mix CD of the songs presented here.
Despite its faults, “Advetnureland” brings the joys and pains of menial minimum wage work in a mostly delightful manner, and should find a receptive audience for many years to come.Rating: A-