Adventureland is one of those movies in which the setting—the time and place—are more interesting than the characters that populate it. Set in a rundown amusement park during the Regan years, it’s a coming of age story of James (The Squid and the Whale’s Jesse Eisenberg), a sensitive teen whose plans of moving to New York to attend grad school at Columbia are derailed when his father is downsized and money becomes tight. To get out of Pittsburgh and his stultifying suburban life he needs to get a job. Trouble is he has no skills, just a degree in Renaissance studies and, “Unless someone wants help restoring a fresco,” he says, “I’m screwed.” He eventually lands a gig at Adventureland handing out stuffed animals to the few carnival goers lucky enough to beat the amusement park’s rigged games.
The characters at the park seem like an interesting bunch. There’s the part-time musician, womanizer and maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who claims to have jammed with Lou Reed, even though he refers to one of Reed’s best known songs as Shed A Little Love instead of Satellite of Love; his best friend from grade four Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush) who wears a t-shirt that says “I’m Frigo! Kapeesh!!” and has the unsettling habit of punching James below the belt two or three times a day; the pipe-smoking Joel (Martin Starr), a self loathing Gogol obsessed intellectual who characterizes their jobs as the “work of pathetic morons” and Em (Kirsten Stewart) a pretty but dour tomboy who favors baggy Lou Reed t-shirts.
It’s an interesting canvas but director Greg Mottola, who based the screenplay on his own experiences of working at the real-life Adventureland, doesn’t bring the same kind of zip to the situations or characters as he did in his last movie, the sublime Superbad.
Adventureland breathes the same air as its predecessor but is much different in tone. The goofy guys in Superbad are gone, replaced by James, a young boy who early on makes a mixed tape for Em of his favorite bummer songs, including Lou Reed’s doleful Pale Blues Eyes, which sets the movie’s downbeat tone.
This is not to say there aren’t humorous moments. Bill Hader shines as the larger-than-life park manager and James’s story about his mom reading his diary—he had to start writing it in Italian to throw her off—is hilarious but the overall tone is sweet rather than funny.
As James Eisenberg is appealing enough, but I’m guessing after the success of Twilight this movie will find an audience based on the popularity of co-star Kristen Stewart. Since playing Bella in the vampire franchise she’s become a hot item, and with her naturally down turned mouth she does sullen like no other young actress working today.
Adentureland, with it’s carefully picked 80s soundtrack and close attention to period details is an interesting time capsule of the decade of greed from a teenager’s perspective. I just wish I had cared more about the characters and less about the set decoration.