Director Greg Mottola made a minor splash on the 90s independent cinema scene with the film The Daytrippers in 1996. Mottola then did something rather unexpected, instead of riding the wave of this minor success into a breakout hit like Pulp Fiction or Memento he instead went straight into directing TV with credits on Arrested Development and Undeclared.
Whilst unexpected, this may have given him suitable grounding when it came time to directing a full on comedy feature. His second feature credit, Superbad was an American Pie level success for a new generation. It had the gross out comedy and dick jokes but also had a level of warmth and heart previously unseen in the genre for a while. It helped immensely that Superbad was based on real life hijinks that writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg had been through. Something about the situations and dialogue rang especially true. So it’s no coincidence that Mottola would stick with a story based on real things told through a nostalgic lens for his next movie, a story that he wrote based on something that happened to him, something personal, it was time for Adventureland.
At the time, the casual cinema goer expected another Superbad, “From the director of Superbad!” screamed the advertising. The trailer was cut to emphasise the comedy and at the time the studio behind it; Miramax was (and still is) struggling to find its identity post Weinstein exodus. It’s likely that the studio didn’t really know what it had and had no idea how to market the film beyond linking it to a previous success from Mottola. It seems that the studio got semi-cold feet at the last-minute because they ended up not giving the film a wide release but a kind of semi-wide release which wasn’t a full-blown thing but wasn’t limited either.
The film therefore made under 10 million on its first weekend and then in its second, despite expanding to more screens, it made less money as word of mouth that it was not another Superbad spread. Going in expecting a Superbad clone will inevitably lead to disappointment, but watching Adventureland on its own terms and it’s one of the most overlooked and undervalued films of recent times. Adventureland is a film that is as warm, feel good and nostalgic as Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous and feels very much like the kind of film that Crowe has forgotten how to make. It is perhaps one of the finest coming of age stories of recent times.
The story follows well to do high school graduate James (Jesse Eisenberg) who’s planned summer travelling Europe is ruined when his parents face financial ruin and they have to move back to his childhood home town in Pittsburgh. Back in Pittsburgh is where James faces the prospect of having to work over the summer and finance his way through college in the fall. Met with rejection by more respectable jobs, James eventually takes a job working at the local low rent amusement park called Adventureland. Here he meets Emily (Kristen Stewart) a troubled young lady who is also the coolest girl he has ever met. Trouble is Emily is having an affair with married, failed musician Connell (Ryan Reynolds). James finds that his supply of weed left to him by his travelling friends makes him supremely popular with his co-workers. He manages to bond with downbeat Joel (Martin Starr) and grows closer and closer to Emily. Despite not being in the place he imagined, James finds that over time the summer he spends working at Adventureland becomes a summer he will never forget.
Adventureland gets so many things spot on right without being all self-referential and knowing about it and the approach is refreshing. What Mottola really captures is the feeling of a summer spent with minimal responsibility when things were simpler and seemed better. The film is set in 1987 but doesn’t overload the viewer with nostalgic cheese by chucking in Rubik cubes and A.L.F for no apparent reason. We do get one of the most perfect soundtracks though with late 80s alternative hits which are just obscure enough to not push the film over the line into nostalgia overload. It’s simple and presents a world with no mobile phones or social media but people thrown together in what they perceive as a shitty situation which just ends up being the best summer of their lives. There are no awkward sexual situations or mishaps with glue and penises to speak of. The humour comes from the strong characterisations and the dialogue which flows naturally and has the feel of shooting the breeze that you get with co-workers in minimum wage jobs. That feeling of having your first real job (that you don’t want) and encountering the first girl who interests you for her personality, bleeds through every frame of Adventureland and the feeling is infectious, making it easy to get swept up in the nostalgic glow of the film.
A film like Adventureland really lives or dies by the performances and luckily the two lead roles here are perfectly cast. This was a time before Zombieland or The Social Network and Jesse Eisenberg was best known as the annoying kid from Roger Dodger or The Squid and the Whale. Eisenberg here proved he could be a romantic lead with minimum suspension of disbelief as well as an everyman character, with his teenage Woody Allen mannerisms dialed down to make him the right side of likeable. There are moments towards the end of the film where Eisenberg allows a look of recognition creep across the characters face as he comes to terms with the fact that he has just had the best summer of his life but didn’t know it. It’s difficult to imagine another actor being as good in the role as Eisenberg is here.
Kirsten Stewart is an actress who has unfortunately had the relationship to a popular franchise as well as her awkward public demeanour; overwhelm her work. Ignoring all the hoopla and it’s obvious that Stewart is actually a very gifted and versatile actress. Here she plays the dream girl who so many of us would have dreamed of meeting at the same age but of course being a dream girl isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, so her character is haunted and has an edge and Stewart plays her perfectly, always verging on hysteria.
These two are backed up by an exceptional cast. Ryan Reynolds was in the midst of something of a renaissance here after The Nines and his character is somehow the most unlikable and yet Reynolds imbues him with a sadness and realism that gives him dimension. His final scene is possibly the best thing Reynolds has ever done on-screen. Martin Starr isn’t somebody we see much but he plays the world-weary nerd to perfection in this film, someone who has spent one too many years chasing the summer of their life and needs to move on but can’t due to a lack of self-confidence. The most out-and-out comedic performances of the whole film come from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the husband and wife management team of the park and their humorous scenes punctuate the angst perfectly without ever feeling intrusive.
Adventureland is the kind of warm, nostalgic blast of brilliance that could only come from the kind of mature mind of someone some twenty years after they lived through it. It’s that rare beast of a film that gets better each time you watch it. Mottola went back to crowd pleasing comedy with Paul following the failure of this film but Adventureland is without doubt his finest work. That more people haven’t seen this is one of the more baffling things in modern cinema and it’s ripe for re-discovery.