The first time I saw Adventureland (2009) was at an AMC 24 Screen multiplex on a date. I didn’t like the film as much as my girlfriend did but that was typically the case. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that writer and director Greg Mottola was returning to the aesthetic roots of his first feature The Daytrippers (1996). After helming the monster hit that was Superbad (2007) Mottola just turned around and did a smaller, character driven film.
Adventureland is a coming of age story set in 1987 about a recent college graduate, James (Jesse Eisenberg) who takes a summer job at an amusement park back in his home town. James falls in love with co-worker Em (Kristen Stewart) and befriends the awkward Joel (Martin Starr). As the trio navigate romance, faulty carnival rides, and angry customers they gradually enter adulthood. Mottola doesn’t shy away from how uncomfortable and even dangerous life can be at times. Ryan Reynolds turn as the predatory, would be rock star antagonist Connell is the most daring performance of the actor’s career.
Although Adventureland deals in all of the familiar archetypes and narrative tropes of the standard coming of age drama it feels nevertheless genuine. This sense of authenticity stems from the fact that Mottola does clutter the film with unnecessary side plots and allows each character enough screen time to become defined beyond their initial role as a pre-fab signifier. Adventureland is a film structured around observing the actors as they play their scenes. It is not a film concerned with rushing from point “A” to point “B” nor is it making some kind of overtly meaningful statement.
Unlike many films of this ilk Adventureland does not promise to be a fun movie. It’s a simple film that looks at how the small lessons of romance and friendship are learned by those just entering adulthood. Yes, Adventureland can be funny, but if that is all one is looking for then you’re going to miss what really works in the movie.
Adventureland is never going to be my favorite Mottola film, but it is a film that I can respect. Mottola sells his characters, gives the film a specific and unique sense of setting, and crafts a film that runs low on plot by high on truth. It’s also a film with a terrific soundtrack by Yo La Tengo and some choice needle drops. I also want all of Kristen Stewarts t-shirts from this movie.