Miramax’s marketing department didn’t do Adventureland any favors with its ad campaign promising another round of raucous and outrageous humor a la director Greg Mottola’s previous film, Superbad. It ended up grossing only a modest $16 million in theaters, likely hurt by bad word of mouth from moviegoers uninterested in anything without nonstop humor.
It’s a shame too, because Adventureland is the kind of warm and genuine youthful dramedy that the late John Hughes might have made in this day and age had he not given up on directing. Adventureland’s pitch-perfect ’80s style makes it perhaps the best John Hughes film to not feature any involvement from the man himself.
Mottola’s script isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s thoughtful and clearly personal, and he coaxes so many strong performances from his wide array of actors that it’s a pleasure to watch from start to slightly corny finish.
Based on a real amusement park in Long Island where Mottola himself worked a crappy summer job, Pittsburgh’s Adventureland is where recent college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) finds himself working as a last resort in the summer of 1987.
James plans to tour Europe over the summer before going to grad school at Columbia in the fall, but his parents’ (Jack Gilpin, Wendie Malick) money problems force him to look for work instead. A comparative literature major, James is a nerd without skills or experience, making him the perfect candidate for a job at Adventureland, owned and operated by Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig), who provide most of the film’s well-placed humor.
The park’s full of a colorful cast of characters, including brooding Em (Kristen Stewart), misfit Joel (Martin Starr), and handyman Mike (Ryan Reynolds). It isn’t long before James is falling for Em and confessing his crush to the super-cool Mike. Of course, people aren’t exactly what they seem, leading to emotional confusion and hurt that comes off surprisingly authentic. One of Adventureland’s biggest strengths is its residence in a world that isn’t hyper-real, like many of its comedy contemporaries. Chalk it up to a script that likely draws a lot from Mottola’s own experiences, and a completely winning performance by Eisenberg, who doesn’t play some caricature of the lovable geek, but is intelligent, naïve, and real.
Stewart, whose involvement in the Twilight series will likely be just a minor blip in a long and acclaimed career, is excellent as the troubled Em, and Reynolds shows himself to be more than capable as a dramatic actor.