Adventureland is a 2009 dramedy directed by Greg Mottola. Though it was advertised as if it were a spiritual sequel to Mottola’s previous hit film Superbad, the movie is actually very different in tone. Unlike Superbad’s Hollywood-style portrayal of teenage love, Adventureland goes for a more realistic approach, with characters who feel like they’re genuinely fumbling and a more bittersweet conclusion. Poorly received at the box office, the movie is actually much better than most people give it credit for; I think the shoddy reception is due mostly to the aforementioned marketing, which gave the wrong impression and set up false expectations for the entirely wrong audience. If you’re coming in expecting a goofy flick to watch when you’re drunk, you’ll be sorely disappointed, as the jokes in Adventureland are few and far between — but the film has an earnest honesty to it that makes it very powerful when you’re in the right mood.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as James Brennan, a shy, introspective nerd who plans on going to grad school after the summer. But after the unexpected job loss of his father, Brennan finds himself taking up a summer job at the local amusement park, Adventureland. Here he meets the mandatory assortment of kooky characters: the snarky slacker Joel (Martin Starr), the hot chick Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), local macho man Mike (Ryan Reynolds), and the love interest, Em. Kristen Stewart plays the lead female role of Em in her typical lip-biting style, but it does work in this instance, proving that she really doesn’t deserve the hate she gets from being in Twilight. She can act when her character actually has a personality.
Where Superbad tried to be a straight comedy with only small dramatic elements to keep it afloat, Adventureland tries to do the opposite. In this, the film is fairly successful.
The characters are, for the most part, well-written and well-developed throughout the narrative; even the archetypal hot chick has a little more depth than you would expect, dating the main character for a brief time and letting some details spill about her background and outlook. The movie has something in common with Lost and Delirious, in that the characters act so consistently stupid and make such obvious mistakes that you want to slap them — but their actions fit their age and situation, and you can’t help but relate to them. If you were ever a teenager, you’ll recognize the people in Adventureland. Even the two-dimensional, undeveloped guy who punches everyone in the nuts is a realistic character, really: I know several people I met in high school who still act like that and never seem to have any depth no matter how long I’ve known them.
Drama is where the movie really shines. Where it starts to falter a bit is the comedy. The structure of the film pools a fair mix of drama and comedy into the first act and partially into the second, but it’s always in the form of a dramedy rather than a comedy — meaning that the scenes are mainly dramatic and have light humour to punctuate them, rather than being primarily funny. The problem is that the movie doesn’t really do this consistently, and ends up becoming a straight drama by the halfway point. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but when the movie starts out like that it starts to wear on your nerves a bit and makes you think, “What happened to the jokes?”
I’m not saying Brennan should wear a clown suit, but the tension is just a tad too much in later scenes of the movie, to a point where it almost starts to seem melodramatic. These are teenagers, yeah, they blow everything out of proportion and act like every little betrayal is a bullet to the head — but they’re teenagers, they’re supposed to be sarcastic and blow off a bit of steam while doing so. For a movie with so many stoners in it, there’s a distinct lack of funny stoned people and an overabundance of philosophical prats. It’s not too bad, but it kills a bit of the movie’s rewatchability — once you know what happens, you can’t muster up that edge-of-your-seat I-want-to-know-what-happens-next feeling, and it becomes a lot less entertaining.
Adventureland is a good film. Hell, it’s a great film that deserves way more recognition than it gets. Is it perfect? Not really; it does go a bit far with the drama at times. But it’s so much closer to being perfect than most movies like it, you have to see it at least once. It’s no Dazed and Confused, but how many movies are?