A while back I watched Greg Mottola’s Paul and made the point in my review that, of Mottola’s four films to date as director, it was a shame that the two he hadn’t actually written himself (Paul and Superbad) had attracted a far greater audience than the two that he also penned (The Daytrippers and Adventureland). The latter pair seem destined to sit on a shelf marked ‘permanently underrated’, which is a real shame as they are both great examples of subtle, nuanced and bittersweet comedy writing, and contain some good performances. The Daytrippers was even an early winner at the Slamdance Film Festival.
That was Mottola’s debut, released way back in 1996, and co-produced by Steven Soderbergh. In the UK at least I remember it receiving some positive reviews that tended to praise both the script and the performances by the cast, which included Stanley Tucci, Parker Posey, Hope Davis and Liev Schreiber (Davis – Synedoche, New York, About Schmidt, American Splendor – is always good and she doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition she deserves). A witty indie road trip movie in the same vein as Sideways or Little Miss Sunshine, it made a couple of million at the box office despite a limited release but sadly seems uncared for today.
Mottola concentrated on TV for ten years after The Daytrippers, but returned in 2007 under the hugely successful Judd Apatow / Seth Rogen umbrella with Superbad, a largely-formulaic teen comedy that ticked all the right boxes and had its moments of fun. With a box office success to point to, Mottola was able to make his third film – and another self-penned comedy – and thus Adventureland appeared in screens five years ago. Unfortunately it was mis-marketed to attract those who enjoyed Superbad and other Apatow-related juvenelia, and many who were expecting a teenage / early-20s sex comedy filled with LOL after LOL after LOL were disappointed. Despite good reviews, it didn’t fare too well commercially.
Set in 1987, Adventureland draws on Mottola’s own experience working in a theme park of the same name in Farmingdale, New York. The story has been transplanted to Pittsburgh, where recent college graduate James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is looking forward to a summer travelling around Europe with a friend before he begins a post-graduate journalism course. Without much warning, however, his parents (played by Wendie Malick and Jack Gilpin) explain to James that their financial situation has worsened, and he must instead work through the summer in order to fund his future studies.
Thankfully the wordy James is no brat, and rather than kicking off and moaning about the unfair hand life has dealt him, he sets out to find employment in a variety of places across the city. He ends up at Adventureland, a tired-looking theme park managed by the enthusiastic married couple Bobby (Bill Hader, who steals every single scene he is in) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig). In possession of a small amount of weed, James quickly befriends the other employees, including the deadpan and similarly-bookish Joel (Martin Starr), the much-desired Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), old school friend and committed cockpuncher Frigo (Matt Bush) and the clued-up Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart), with whom he shares an instant connection.
The use of the setting is excellent. The theme park’s name gives us an indication of what lies ahead for James, and Mottola milks its comic potential. Joel lets James into the secret cheats of carnival games at the start of the summer season, which we all knew about anyway, but it’s nice to have them confirmed by this script. Employees here are split by Bobby into two groups – intellectual freaks n’ geeks work on ‘games’ and the better looking members of staff are assigned to work on ‘rides’, with blue and pink t-shirts confirming the pigeonholing. (Brilliantly, these t-shirts echo the words ‘games, games, games … ‘ and ‘rides, rides, rides … ‘, indicating those wearing the former are slightly more complicated, complex and cerebral types and those wearing the latter are the good-time bunch, freed from self-analysis. Do the two make good matches? Not in this movie.) Meanwhile the adults working in the park seem to be trapped in a kind of semi-adolescence, which must be due in part to the nature of the location; additionally it must be depressing working full-time in a place where everyone else is simply passing through for a few months, and largely unable to hide their scorn for the job at hand.
Adventureland’s love story is a fairly straightforward one. James and Em appear to be a perfect match for each other: the same age, on the same wavelength, sharing similar interests and taste in music, and both have a future planned that involves studying in New York City. However, this being a coming-of-age comedy (sorta, kinda), things do not go according to plan. James is naïve and struggles to handle the more emotionally-complex and (slightly) troubled Em, who compounds matters herself by carrying on an affair with park mechanic and married man Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds).
Reynolds sends up his own heartthrob image superbly as the semi-tragic park worker who fabricates stories about jamming with Lou Reed in order to impress the younger girls working at the theme park each summer. There is something pathetic about Connell, who is getting older but is apparently refusing to engage with people of his own age, including his own wife. Instead, his attention is drawn to the yearly influx of teenage girls who collectively swoon as they hear his tried-and-tested lines; unable to take them home, he screws them in his car or at his mother’s house. In a way, he is similar to Matthew McConaughey’s more exuberant, more likeable Wooderson in Dazed And Confused; both are just a little bit pitiable, hanging around with kids of a certain age instead of moving on in life with their own peers. Thankfully Mottola has not created a straightforward villain of the piece, though, and the character’s decent traits make him (and Em’s attraction to him) all the more believable.
The writing and performances of the cast make up for the fairly basic tried-and-tested love triangle plot, which actually morphs into a love quadrangle at one point. James is a sharp hero, played with bumbling Woody Allen-esque nervousness by Eisenberg but without the exaggerated mania, and his withering self-deprecation is endearing. James is a virgin, but this feels incidental, and Adventureland is not laden with the farce of a young man desperately trying to rid himself of that actually-not-so-terrible tag. He is a thoughtful soul, and smart, and Eisenberg is very good at inhabiting this type of character without ever seeming to be trying too hard. James shares some excellent repartee with Em, making their mutual attraction seem entirely plausible, but they’re also a good physical match. (When James spots some graffiti on a park wall, for example, he points out ‘Satan Lives’ has been mis-spelled ‘Satin Lives’. ‘One of those textile worshipping cults no doubt,’ Em dryly replies.)
Stewart is equally good as Em, a character that has considerably more baggage to deal with than the male cast members. It’s a measured performance that requires a few histrionics from time to time, but she is equal to the task and remains completely believable throughout. Having not seen any of the Twilight movies, this was the first film I had seen starring Kristen Stewart, and I was impressed. From what I can gather, this is a world away from her more widely-seen performances.
Starr gets some pretty good lines, and Bush makes the livewire Frigo fun to watch (although the running gag involving him punching James in the groin starts to wear thin after a while), but the scenes that stand out most in terms of the comedy all involve Hader and Wiig’s husband and wife Bobby and Paulette. Of the two Wiig generously takes a backseat to her onscreen other half, and stands back as Hader runs around Adventureland manically, all wild-eyes and short shorts. Hader’s ability to switch between screaming aggression towards unruly park visitors and calm kindness towards his wife and employees is very, very funny. You want to see more of both characters, but Mottola wisely keeps their appearances to a minimum, ensuring that they do not attract too much attention away from the main plot.
Adventureland covers all of the usual coming-of-age bases: smoking pot, the journey of self-discovery, a first relationship and a first break-up, the joys of getting drunk and listening to cool music. In that sense there’s nothing new to see here, but there is a lot of pleasure still to be had in the way that these factors are all handled maturely. The characters get high, but there’s no ‘ho-ho-ho I’ve got the munchies’ nonsense that some films rely on in order to attract a stoner audience. The writer-director’s sense of restraint with the subject matter – particularly as he could have easily tried to make Superbad 2 – is commendable.
This same lightness of touch is applied to the period setting. Adventureland isn’t overly concerned with hitting its audience with heavy reminders about the 1980s, and Mottola refrains from packing in a ton of visual signifiers or any sense of the decade’s news apart from a brief allusion at the start to Reaganomics. The clothes give the decade away, as do the cars and the music, but that’s about it; there are no Rubik’s Cubes being solved or yellow smiley faces on t-shirts and there are plenty of images that recall even earlier times. Mottola is appreciative of the fact that plenty of people in the mid-to-late 1980s were still driving cars that were produced in the 1970s, and they also listened to music that was made before 1980, something which some filmmakers seem to conveniently forget when looking back. The soundtrack is great and the emotional scenes between Em and James are scored well, but Mottola – crucially – also uses his selection innovatively: Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus, for example, is used to subtly show the passing of time, the park’s staff groans growing ever louder each time it is played at deafening volume.
Though familiarity with the subject matter can often breed contempt, Adventureland succeeds because it is a perfect example of the rite-of-passage comedy drama done well. It eschews gross-out gags in favour of character-driven witty dialogue and scenes of romantic poignancy, but it is by no means averse to the occasional boner joke. Mottola has coaxed good performances from his actors and the main characters are subtly-drawn. Hopefully he will be writing and directing more films in the future. Generally, I don’t think we cherish makers of good comedy films in the same way we do those who construct excellent dramas, thrillers or action films. This one shouldn’t be forgotten.
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Written by: Greg Mottola
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds
Running Time: 106 minutes