"Masters try to make you imitate, and not think for yourself. 'Mould your Latin verses on Vergil, your Greek prose on Thucydides, your English on Matthew Arnold, but don't think for yourself. Don't be original'. If anyone big began to think he'd see what a farce it all is; it's all sham." — Alec Waugh, The Loom of Youth (2007)
Greg Mottola is becoming a worthy successor of John Hughes' mastery in storytelling mired in misunderstood teenagers and flawed adult characters who are thrown into aberrant, out-of-hand situations that force them to confront their destinies, threatened to be diminished by hostile wankers and random saboteurs. Mottola's work is gradually holding sway over this often puerile coming of age genre, thanks to his more mature approach to serious matters, such as sexual rites of passage, angst, and teenage depression.
Machiavelli, in his History of Florence, gave us an account of fear of an uprising youth that dated back to Ancient Venice and Greece. Post-World War II France reinforced their public youth controlling policies: "Send them to summer camps, place others in reformatories…"
"Ever since the Pilgrims departed for Plymouth in 1620, fearful that 'their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and be corrupted' in the Old World", [...] declining academic achievement in the late 1970's and 1980's, which reflected pervasive fears about family breakdown, crime, drugs, and America's declining competitiveness in the world". — Steven Mintz, Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood (2004)
James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, The Squid and the Whale, The Education of Charlie Banks, Zombieland) is floundering with 'mal de jeunesse' during the summer of '87 at his suburban Pittsburgh home, flaunting a degree in Renaissance Studies and a comparative literature major from Oberlin. Recently graduated from college, he's accepted by Columbia University, but after telling his parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) he needs more cash for his European tour, he learns his father has been transferred to another job and they can't afford to lend him any money.
Looking to accommodate these bleak new perspectives, James is hired by a married couple Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), who manage the local run-down amusement park Adventureland.
Inspired by his own autobiographic memories, Greg Mottola (director of Undeclared and Arrested Development, opera prima The Daytrippers, Superbad) anchors Brennan with a sense similar to William Miller, alter ego of Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous, and a musical structure that confers on the story a progressive emotional electricity — the opening song is "Bastards Of Young" by The Replacements, an assessment of the protagonist's questioning of his place climbing the social ladder. His rich friend Eric gives James a bag full of joints before taking off to the Old World.
Another friend of James (until he turned 4), Frigo (Matt Bush), inclemently kicks him in the crotch everytime he sees him oustside the park. The first day on the job, James meets Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart, Speak, Twilight, The Runaways), a traumatized girl who hasn't gotten over her mother's loss, and a congenial guy named Joel (Martin Starr, Freaks and Geeks, Clark & Michael, Party Down). James bonds with Joel (who admires Gogol) with whom he shares literary interests, and shows Em reciprocal indie rock appreciation (Eno, Lou Reed, Husker Dü, Big Star, etc.), starting a leaky yet radically affective relationship with her.
Later James also will meet the park’s maintenance/handyman, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds, Smokin' Aces, Definitely Maybe) and the scatterbrained local dancer Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva, The Invisible, Noise, Spread), striking up an unusual relationship at work that will lead him to the usual missteps that we all can remember as disconcerting and still resonant decades later.
As the same time as he's trading his intellect for cheap thrills with the wannabe rocker Connell (who boasts of having played a jam session with Lou Reed once) and with Lisa, the sloe-eyed Catholic bimbo (who runs the Musik-Express carny and dances with James in a Razzmatazz's shindig), he keeps falling harder for Em after sharing a 4th of July fireworks experience where the sparks fly above the displaced characters and decaying diversions' rubblework.
The dialogue is often subtle (avoiding common clichés or abuse of stoner slang) and elusive at determined key points, revealing multiple hurdles that slacken and hurt the protagonist's course of dreams. Two examples are the staggered date James arranges with Lisa P. in The Velvet Touch, when both share a joint, and she makes an observation about sailboats and speedboats which just mirrors the differences between Em and her:
"Sailboats are, like, way more cooler, you know, like more classic. Though I bet speedboats would be a lot more fun."
Then, after having saved Em from some game attackers, she confesses to him, "I think you might be the coolest and cutest guy I ever met."
This latter could remind us of some of Juno's one-liners, and one of the virtues of Adventureland is although it's placed in the late '80s, it is able to hit the current sensibilities' chord with a wise dose of lenience and candidness.
The young women in the film are practically complete opposites, however James's blind horniness prevents him from looking beyond Lisa P.'s sultry façade; she'll quickly metamorphose from a childlike airhead to a sort of small-town scandalmonger, a Tyndaleic femme fatale.
Em's character arc is less visible for most of viewers, but isn't unnoticed by James. In fact he sees her spirit even more clearly than she does herself, and he continues to love her when she least deserves it but when she needs it the most.
Also surprising is that the supporting characters contain a lot of humanity within their worst traits: the worldly Connell is a seducer who rationalizes his conquests as inherently rooted in a tragic side, and the prudish vamp Lisa P. can be rather personable despite her prejudiced view of men and women.
The songs chosen by Mottola legitimize the film's atmosphere, from classics like David Bowie, the New York Dolls, the Rolling Stones (an on-the-spot choice of "Tops" when Lisa P. enters the park under the unconditional attention of every male worker), Nick Lowe, The Cure, Poison, Whitesnake, INXS, to more alternative bands like Hüsker Dü, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Violent Femmes ("Blister in the Sun" in the trailer), The Replacements, and most remarkable, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, who make a lasting impression when "Pale Blue Eyes" is playing during the first kiss scene between James and Em near a bridge. The same song appears in a more dramatic context later after a falling out between James and the two girls at Adventureland.
"Pale Blue Eyes" was one of the most heartfelt compositions written by Lou Reed, dedicated to his first girlfriend from Syracuse, Shelley Albin, who was that college sweetheart that Reed "had but couldn't keep." It's curious because this song has been one of my personal favorite love tunes for a long time. And the close relationship triangle of James, Em, and Joel could be a grungy, amiable version of that intoxicating friendship between Lou Reed, Shelley Albin, and Lincoln Swados.
Some of the best moments are performed by Eisenberg and Stewart together, elevating their chemistry to a level of recognizable sentiment.
Mottola's film dredges up the insidious contradictions of the '80s. Among that era's oil dynasties, Wall Street yuppies, and Croesus types, there existed a less plush underworld populated by shoddy rock clubs, over-educated misfits, alcoholics, and wacky carny barkers who lure customers to their rigged attractions while repeatedly denying them winning a giant-ass panda. The system remorselessly cheats the customer and its employees are mere apprentices of the local lore (getting by on minimum wage and corn dogs, piffling prizes, dreaming of dipping into one's savings to attend Columbia's grad school one day), fooling around on a playground that turns into a seething mating ground at night.
But in Adventureland there is an extra lesson of pursuing your passions, although these could let you down and the outside chance that love wins in the end that sets our hearts going pitapat.
"If you come and go with me
The roller-coaster, you and me.
Just try, would you like to go
on the Coney Island Steeple…" — "Coney Island Steeplechase," The Velvet Underground
"This is one of the few amusement parks," said art director Matt Munn. "It's a historic landmark, and it's maintained that older look. It hasn't been updated. There are the wooden roller coasters, which are great."
"I love bumper cars and I have a specific memory of being with a particularly pretty girl on the Ferris wheel," says Greg Mottola.
Adventureland was shot in widescreen 1.85:1 with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Digital Dolby. The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p High Definition, in English 5.1 DTS-HD (48 kHz/24-Bit) and in French 5.1 Dolby Digital. The Blu-ray video is more nitid and bright than the original DVD format while retaining part of its original grain. The background music is scored by Yo La Tengo, setting the mood for the scenes.
Deleted Scenes – "Drunk Mom," "Angry Grandfather," "James Keeps Quiet"
Audio Commentary – Writer/director Greg Mottola and actor Jesse Eisenberg talk about the film and the songs and the challenges Mottola faced when their budget was low but they needed a song for the ending credits.
"Just My Life: The Making Of Adventureland" – Greg Mottola explains how he translated his real life experiences working for a summer at Adventureland in Farmingdale, Long Island. Because the real New York amusement park looked too updated, it was filmed in Kennywood Park, Pittsburgh. Cast members Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader, and Martin Starr also talk about the worst jobs they had.
"Lisa P’s Guide To Style" – Lisa P (Margarita Levieva) talks about ‘80s fashion style and neon pink nail polish.
"Welcome to Adventureland" – a pair of commercials promoting a fun-tastic time at Adventureland.
An Easter Egg also can be found in the bonus features of the Blu-ray: click on the panda bear and you'll see an extra scene with Kristen Stewart trying to get into the Razzmatazz club.
"As Gordon walked back alone, he had the unpleasant feeling that the best was over… The friends of his first term… had all gone, scattered to the winds. He alone remained, and with a sudden pain he wondered whether he had not outlived his day, whether, like Tithonus, he was not taking more than he had been meant to take." — Alec Waugh, The Loom of Youth