Greg Mottola’s 2009 film, Adventureland, is at this point probably most discussed for its misleading advertising campaign. Miramax took a film that was a fairly low-key coming of age film and made it out to look like a broad Apatow-style comedy through its trailers and posters. Being the follower of film discussion and criticism that I am, I was forewarned about this ruse and knew not to be turned off by the problematic advertising. The problem is that the movie I’d been told to expect was just as problematic for me as the one in the advertisements. The semi-autobiographical coming of age story genre is something I’ve grown an increasing disinterest in. It’s an over-used and often indulgent format, and even though it’s supposed to be a very personal style of story, a whole lot of them seem to follow a similar formula. Additionally, I had the displeasure of working at an amusement park in my past, and I’m really not at a point where I want to nostalgically look back on that experience. So this movie was in a place where it needed to work pretty exceptionally well to impress me, but with all the praise it’s gotten I knew I needed to give it a chance.
Set in the summer of 1987, the film is about a young man named James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) who’s recently earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and plans to attend the Columbia Graduate School in the fall, but first he must earn some money while living with his parents in Pittsburgh over the summer. Brennan realizes that he doesn’t really have the experience for most jobs in the area, so in desperation he gets a job as a midway operator at a local amusement park. The employees at the park have formed something of a community together lead by married co-managers Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig). Brennan befriends some of his co-workers like Joel (Martin Starr) and Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), but the most important person he meets is Emily “Em” Lewin (Kristen Stewart), a girl with a troubled family life but who is smart and has a lot of spirit. Brennan’s friendship with “Em” eventually turns into a romance, but Brennan doesn’t have a whole lot of experience with girls and over the course of the summer he’s going to come to form bond with both her and his other co-workers that’s different from any of the relationships he’s had at his preppy college.
What’s probably the film’s strongest aspect is its realism. This is not a heightened movie, the characters are down to earth and as developed as they should be. These characters change over the course of the film, and they are also very capable of surprising the audience with their depth. Take the boss played by Bill Hader for example, he seems like simple comic relief side character at first, but as the film goes on he reveals himself to be a really good natured leader willing to help his employees. There’s also a refreshing economic realism to the proceedings. Most Hollywood films about teenagers are set in lavish suburbs where every young person has their own car, live in swanky houses and are played by future Maxim models. That’s not the case with film, where people are believably living with real world pressures and live similarly real lifestyles.
Unfortunately, for all the film gets right in its setting and tone, I still think it falls into a lot of the pitfalls of the coming of age genre. While I liked all the way the characters interacted, the film’s main conflict is a pretty standard issue love triangle. The movie also isn’t above a few annoying tropes like one of those scenes where a couple are in conflict simply because they’re too stupid to sit down and rationally discuss their problems. Also, this is a movie that could have been pretty well served by some actual comedy to go along with it. I knew this wasn’t going to be a broad comedy along the lines of Greg Mottola’s Superbad, but some real laughter would have really gone a long way toward distancing the film from the standard issue coming of age narrative that I’ve been mentioning a lot in this review. Ultimately that formula is probably the main thing preventing me from really embracing this otherwise very well made film. The film simply treads on one of my pet peeves and it’s hard to overcome that, I suspect it will work better for those who don’t share my distaste for that format.
*** out of Four