Like some of Cameron Crowe’s earliest films—his most perceptive looks at romantic triumphs and travails in a specific time period, both in society and in someone’s life—Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is a sweet-hearted study of romance among college grads coping with their new independence in the summer of 1987. Thankfully, the movie also leaves behind some of the vulgar crassness that seems to always work in Judd Apatow’s films (Knocked Up et al.), but which felt strangely out of place in Mottola’s gentler Superbad (2007). Credit much of the movie’s resonance to its cast, each of them investing easily identifiable personae with some surprising gravitas.
The summer he graduates, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) finds himself stuck in his Pennsylvania hometown. A planned trip to Europe falls through because his parents’ economic situation takes a downturn. In order to raise the money he needs to move to New York for grad school, he takes a job at the local amusement park, Adventureland. There he meets Em (Kristen Stewart), a beautiful but emotionally distant co-worker; Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a studly maintenance man with a mysterious past; and Bobby and Paulette (SNL’s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), the park’s clueless owners. The summer job at Adventureland ultimately offers James some romantic adventures, some hard lessons as he confronts adulthood, and a nostalgic soundtrack to his life.
Loathe as I am to admit it, I feel a particular affinity with Eisenberg’s James. Like his character, I carried the “Scarlet V” (virginity, as its referred to in the movie) late into my young adulthood for many of the same reasons. James is starting to outgrow the need to modulate his personality for mass consumption. That is, he no longer feels the need to hide his intelligence in an attempt to attract women. Eisenberg’s performance seems rooted in a Woody Allen-esque irony, a shorthand that informs us of James’ potentially attractive intellect. This resonated strongly with me because, after a time, I also discovered that once you show your particular quirks, you become a more distinctive person. And just like the summer in which I all of a sudden found myself with more prospective partners than I could handle, James finds himself caught between the soulful but distant Em, and the hot but shallow Lisa P (Margarita Levieva).
Mottola perfectly captures the period and the stage of life in which James finds himself. Using music to stoke the atmosphere, he does one of my favorite things, often overlooked, with the soundtrack—he populates it with songs not just from 1987, but with older songs one might still be listening to at the time, like “Satellite of Love.” That song in particular is integral to the story, as James discovers that Connell, who claims to have jammed with Lou Reed, is suddenly outed as a poseur by his lack of familiarity with this iconic tune. The song serves as a metaphor for James’ own disillusionment with his idol/friend, as he comes to realize that all the advice he’s received from him on women is even more ignorant than any he might have gleaned for himself.
Tony Dayoub considers all manner of films and TV at Cinema Viewfinder.