Where's Molly Ringwald and Duckie when you need 'em? Settling somewhere between upper John Hughes and lower Dazed and Confused sits Adventureland, a summer-of-love serio-comedy that'll warm the hearts of Gen-Xers but only mildly amuse anyone under 35.
Not quite a coming-of-age tale and far from the hilariously vulgar cherry-popping quest of Superbad (forget the trailers), Greg Mottola's late '80s nostalgia trip comes closest to Cameron Crowe's Say Anything, focusing on believably ordinary twentysomethings struggling to enter adulthood. Melancholy, modest and genuine, it gets props for skipping the "let's all get laid" formula of its peers but can't quite pull together its disparate narrative pieces. In particular, the Caddyshack-like shtick of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as amusement park owners and doltish cardboard parents are at odds with Adventureland's tender romantic complications.
Drawn from Mottola's own experiences of working at a low-rent theme park, the story is set in 1987 Pittsburgh. James (Jesse Eisenberg playing the Semitic version of Michael Cera) is a virginal smartass just out of college and hoping to backpack around Europe before heading to grad school. Unfortunately, Reaganomics has hit, and Dad is downsized, which means a summer job at the seedy Adventureland amusement park. Bored and depressed, the one bright spot in his summer is Em (Kristen Stewart), the coolest girl he's ever met. Romance sparks, but Em's banging the park's married electrician and part-time rocker (Ryan Reynolds). Friends are made, hearts are broken, crotches are punched and the wistful spirit of Truffaut wrestles with sitcom-ish sexcapades.
Mottola, who first splashed with his terrific indie The Daytrippers, does a good job of capturing the gauzy slice-of-life dynamic of directionless twentysomethings wasting away their summer. To today's culturally savvy teens, these college-aged characters may seem strangely naive, but Adventureland is doing more than channeling '80s affectations. Though the story is, in many ways, old hat, it smartly digs into the Midwest's social psyche of the time, when young people didn't fully recognize the friction generated by class, religion and sexual role-playing.
Better still, Mottola makes good thematic use of his ironic title, using "Adventureland" as a social and generational metaphor — a cheap and disposable land of fake-believe where the lower middle class works and plays because there aren't any other options. It's a canny summation of the impact of Reagan-era economics.
Similarly, as a musical immersion course in the good, bad and ugly of '80s rock, the soundtrack offers up a great playlist, capitalizing on the moronic feel-good pap of Wang Chung and Poison, the pop yearning of Crowded House, and the angry disillusionment of Hüsker Dü. Just as Lloyd Dobler hopefully blasted Peter Gabriel from his boom box, Eisenberg hands broody Stewart (who seems to have studied Jennifer Jason Leigh's early career) a mixtape of his favorite "bummer songs."
Adventureland's young cast is strong, and, when the film works, it captures the languid limbo of post-adolescent confusion and longing. Unfortunately, Mottola cops out in the end with an upbeat conclusion rather than leaving us with the all-too painful realization that life is unfair and sometimes sex makes jerks of us all.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].