"Has great comic performances, but unfortunately lacks the laugh-out-loud moments that made Superbad such a ride."
The worst job I ever had was working at K-Mart when I was 15. It lasted for all of five, maybe six days before I quit in the middle of a shift because the degradation of being bossed around by people more than twice my age but seemingly half as intelligent as me was just too much for my teenaged brain to handle. The worst job writer-director Greg Mottola (Superbad) ever had, it turns out, was as a games operator at an amusement park in Long Island called Adventureland, which, when I think about it now, means that K-Mart job I had was nothing to be embarrassed by. He’s turned his misadventures there into a new indie comedy also called Adventureland, which he presents as a summer dreamworld populated by dysfunctional beauties (Kristen Stewart), chaste sluts (Margarita Levieva), married rides mechanics (Ryan Reynolds), and eccentric owners (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig). When European-bound college grad James (Jesse Eisenberg) has his funding yanked by suddenly broke parents, he winds up trapped here for three months in order to save money – and instead falls in love and discovers what kind of man he has it in him to be. It’s a fun, surprisingly poignant story filled with some great comic and even dramatic performances, but unfortunately lacks the laugh-out-loud moments that made Superbad such a ride.
Adventureland is set in 1987, and it feels like it. Unlike a lot of writers or directors who look at the decade as an opportunity for ridicule, Mottola celebrates the music, big hair, and bad styles. Even the hazy camerawork suggests nostalgia for those bygone years of his youth. Characters like James and Stewart’s Em feel out of place for their own reasons, and consequently provide just enough perspective for us to remember the absurdity of the culture around them, but never with disdain.
The performances are also almost universally impressive, especially with regards to Stewart and Reynolds. Reynolds plays largely against type here; he’s still handsome and a lady’s man, but, if the movie has a villain, he’s it. Married happily according to him, he’s notorious for carrying around a guitar and making claims about once jamming with Lou Reed to get with the younger park employees – like Em, who’s trying to cope with the recent death of her mother and his father’s new wife by sleeping with him. There's a sadness to both of the characters that's hard not to empathize with.
For a movie that succeeds in so many ways as a love song to the 80s, Adventureland fails to deliver any potentially iconic moments that would help propel it to the classic status. There are no boom boxes held overhead, no gloved fists punching at the air. There’s a kid running around at dusk shooting bottle rockets off like he’s got hold of a grenade launcher, but, as memorable as the image is, it doesn’t resonate emotionally. That’s probably the movie’s biggest problem; it’s rife with sentiment, but never reaches a boiling point that hits you in the gut. It comes close in one scene where Em confronts her snarky stepmom and yanks off her wig, but the rest of it, even the climax, feels a bit…well, tepid.
Only that Hader and Wiig aren’t on screen more. These two manage to become the best parts of almost everything they appear in.