Adventureland is at its best when it’s just vibin’. And, to be sure, there’s lots of that going on. But this movie has a story; in fact, it has a remarkably robust screenplay where nearly every scene lays the groundwork in some meaningful way to the film’s melancholy climax. As a piece of screenwriting, it’s simultaneously subtle and more ambitious than any other breezy hangout comedy I’ve ever seen.
But it’s the vibes I’m here for, damnit!
This ‘80s throwback, written and directed by Superbad director Greg Mottola, follows James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a virgin dork who spends the summer stuck working at a low-rent amusement park. His college buddy gives him a bag of pot before the summer starts, giving him an immediate popularity boost with his equally aimless and bored coworkers, including Em (Kristen Stewart), Joel (Martin Starr), and Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva).
Mottola seems intent to make his generation’s Dazed and Confused, soaking scenes in a terrific pop-rock soundtrack as characters meander and banter, forming a nostalgic cinematic fuzziness you want to wrap around your whole body. This is epitomized by a scene where Mottola places the camera behind Em and James, looking over their shoulders as they pause on the 4th of July to watch fireworks and listen to “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” This scene legitimately makes me choke up. I’ve had a handful of moments in my life where everything slowed down and felt perfect for just a breath of an instant, and I still look back fondly, and this scene feels like those memories. “The amber of this moment,” to quote Vonnegut.
It’s also a funny movie. There are plenty of big, obvious jokes (like a perfectly timed gag of someone shouting “boner!”) but lots of crafty ones, too (like the recurring motif of “games” vs. “rides” at the amusement park, which is played for innuendos). Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader appear as the amusement park owners, and they bring some wacky comic energy to the film; too wacky, I think, but they’re still funny. (Some of their low key stuff, like a discussion about unrefrigerated corndogs, is especially great.)
The film culminates with a love quadrangle imploding, this one involving the handsome mechanic Connell (Ryan Reynolds) and flirty Lisa P. The film’s good nature winds down a bit here; imagine Dazed and Confused spending its last half hour on relationship angst rather than smoking doobies on the football field. But it still mostly works as storytelling, and it provides good character development.
The film’s closing minutes center around a long, rainy bus ride, and it’s a perfect image. The sweat washed away. The memories already fading. A big, cold world to confront, where Adventureland will be a forgotten blip. Summer doesn’t last forever. It wouldn’t be special if it did.
The cast is a very impressive ensemble. Eisenberg is excellent as James, embodying the sensitive geek trope and giving the role a bit more dignity than it could have had. Stewart has less to do; mostly play off Eisenberg and project soulfulness and sad inscrutability, all of which she does wonderfully and with allure. (The world mostly knew her as the lead of Twilight in 2009, so the thought that she could really act was a novel one.) The last highlight is Starr, who I only ever have good things to say about, whatever the project is.
The one performance that doesn’t quite stick for me is Reynolds, who feels off as Connell. Maybe I just have his more gregarious performances on the mind, but he feels a bit stiff and not quite slimy enough to really come across as the sleazeball the script thinks he is.
Like most hangout movies, I think it’s easy to underrate Adventureland. It’s a film with vision and even some heart; and when those fail it, it at least has that perfect 1987 easygoing nostalgia texture. It’s hard to be in a bad mood when “Pale Blue Eyes” is playing and two characters we like are onscreen. There are few summer movies I enjoy more than this one.