Dull Love Story Sinks Slow, Sweet Adventureland
There are plenty of films in the popular “just hanging out” subgenre, but it takes the right touch to make one work. Richard Linklater has it — I could watch Dazed and Confused 100 times in a row and never get sick of it, even though it’s about a bunch of bored kids not doing much of anything.
Last year’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was made in a similar vein, but it felt artificial and selfconscious, too eager to please to be any real fun. Adventureland falls somewhere in between these two films — it has the gradual sensibility of the former, but it’s bogged down by a dull love story between two actors with zero chemistry. That said, Adventureland does strike its own chord. The opening credits roll over the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young,” a song about being listless, overeducated and stuck. The opening lines — “God, what a mess/ on the ladder of success/ where you take one step and miss the whole first rung” — sum up exactly what you’re about to see, and I only comment on it because it’s almost like writer-director Greg Mottola wrote the movie about the song. A number of scenes are similarly and appropriately scored. The unfortunate climber is James (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent college grad looking forward to a summer in Europe before heading off to pursue his masters at Columbia. He gets stuck at home in Pittsburgh after his dad gets demoted, which dries up both Jesse’s travel fund and his money for grad school. Bummed out and broke, he starts looking for work, but there’s only one place the career academic with no job skills can work — Adventureland, a local theme park replete with suspicious-smelling corn dogs, rigged carnival games and bored twentysomethings. To get by, he turns to Em (Kristen Stewart), a dark-eyed cipher who works the booth beside his. Their budding relationship becomes the bright spot of his depressing summer, but this won’t be an easy romance — she has her own affair going on with the park’s married handyman (Ryan Reynolds). A lot of movies fall victim to misguided marketing, and Adventureland is one of them. Mottola’s last film was Superbad, so in a sense you can’t fault Miramax for selling this film as its spiritual successor. But Adventureland isn’t Superbad, a fact that works both to its benefit and detriment. For starters, it’s not very funny. It’s not that the jokes fail — to the contrary, what laughs you’ll find are generally solid — but Mottola doesn’t pack them into every spare moment. This makes the film surprisingly meditative, and it gives the warm nostalgia an opportunity to seep in. It also gives the viewer plenty of space to imagine different directions Mottola could have gone with his story. The theme park is the setting, but it’s not the subject, and Adventureland might have been more memorable if it had been both. It’s the kids and their melodrama that take up the most time, and it’s just not very interesting. Supporting cast members like Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig bring an incongruous, but not unpleasant, kookiness to their scenes, and Martin Starr is quite good as the self-loathing nihilist who shows James the ropes. The main characters are dull by comparison. Eisenberg is affable enough, but he’s hardly the leading man this film needs, and Stewart doesn’t bring out his best qualities. She delivers her lines like Katie Holmes on Xanax, and falls flat when the script requires her to be anything other than aloof and distant. They both look like they’re sleepwalking and just happened to bump into each other. In a way, that’s appropriate — Adventureland is a love song to those rudderless years a lot of people have after college — but the romance is supposed to wake both of them up, and it never really seems to. It’s symptomatic of the film as a whole: Adventureland wants to play like your good memories of your old friends, but in practice it feels more like a pleasant encounter with a former co-worker. You’ll enjoy it, but you won’t want to hang out on a regular basis.
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