By Erik Davis (original publication date: 1/20/09 -- Sundance Film Festival)
Adventureland is and isn't everything I expected it to be. First off, no matter what the trailer may show you, this is in no way Superbad, circa 1987 -- so get that out of your head now. Adventureland is, instead, a sometimes subtle dramedy that's more touchy-feely than it is funny. With more in common with writer-director Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers, Adventureland is a moody late-eighties time capsule whose parts explode on the screen and shoot out in several different directions before landing, together, in a pile of mixed emotions.
James (Jesse Eisenberg) is an inexperienced brainiac who's looking forward to spending his summer before college traveling through Europe. With the trip planned right down to the last penny, James is informed by his stiff parents that the nine hundred bucks he was supposed to receive as a graduation present won't be arriving in his pockets anytime soon since dad was forced to take a major pay cut at work. So, instead of discovering himself abroad, James is forced to find a summer job to help pay for his expensive Ivy League school in the fall. When his skinny frame and intellectual persona find him rejected from almost every job out there, James reluctantly takes an opening at the Adventureland theme park in the games division. Once on the grounds of Adventureland, the film really takes off -- reminding us not only of the summer-fling films of our youth, but also introducing a wicked ensemble cast who put the funk back in funktastic. It isn't long before James takes a liking to Emily (Kristen Stewart), the pretty brunette working games alongside him. Emily is cute and edgy and of course there's more to her than it seems. The relationship she has with her rich parents is not good, and her relationships with the opposite sex aren't any better. And as James grows closer to Emily -- hoping she'll happily become his first love -- he slowly learns the girl has a whole host of demons camped out in the closet.
In between moments of love, lust and fireworks, other employees at the park -- like Martin Starr's hilarious, scene-stealing Joel -- really step up and sell the flick's good, nostalgic vibes. Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig turn in great-yet-relaxed performances as the park's eccentric owners, while newcomer Margarita Levieva is absolutely awesome as the totally 80's hottie Lisa P., whose loud outfits and bubble gum popping turn heads everywhere. In addition to the characters already mentioned, we also have an extremely subdued performance from Ryan Reynolds as the park's mechanical worker, who plays mentor to the younger James as he hides a heartbreaking truth from his new buddy and the rest of the Adventureland workers.
Kudos have to go out to Miramax for taking a chance on Mottola's vision here, because in any other hands -- at any other studio -- this may have turned into a film full of over-the-top performances and silly sight gags. But Mottola tones down his actors, getting great stuff from Eisenberg (whose well-spoken comic timing should land him more leading roles) Starr, Hader and Wiig, but Reynolds unfortunately adds little to the mix, and while we appreciate the fact that his character isn't a complete ass (which is what we'd expect in any other situation), that still doesn't make up for the fact that his scenes kinda drag and weigh the film down.. And while Adventureland comes with a great 80's soundtrack, fun outfits and a few huge hairstyles, it definitely could've injected more 1987 into its corners and along the edges. I guess I wanted to be there, instead of remembering when I was there, if that makes sense.
But if you give the film a chance, and remember that it's not supposed to be "the next Superbad," there are some really great parts to Adventureland that ultimately add up to a pretty decent flick for today's youth and a really great flick for those older folks looking to reconnect with the angst, humor and ridiculousness of late-eighties teenage romance.