Perhaps Adventureland’s middling box office performance will be a blessing in disguise. That the film wasn’t a blockbuster further illuminates its hidden gem status, the kind that’s often pegged to low-budget comedic/melancholic coming-of-age films. If it was popular, its success might overshadow its personality.
As it is, Adventureland features complex characters in complicated relationships but in a very accessible scenario that makes the film easily relatable and seemingly allows it to say different things to different audiences. Nostalgic remembrance of the follies of youth, the disrespect of minimum wage, learning your parents aren’t saints but aren’t villains either, the murkiness of infidelity, the fruitless pursuit of higher education – Adventureland has it all.
Serving as a quasi-memoir for writer/director Greg Mottola, Adventureland chronicles the first summer after college graduation for James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg). A graduate from Oberlin College with a degree in Comparative Literature and Renaissance Studies, James plans to attend Columbia grad school in the fall. But when he returns home, his dad has been moved to a new job and taken a severe pay cut (the film is set in 1987, so there are no direct parallels to the current economic climate) and James is forced to look for a summer job to help with tuition.
A quick survey of jobs in his Pittsburgh suburb brings him to the realization that he’s “not even qualified for manual labor”. Reluctantly, he takes a minimum wage job at the local amusement park, Adventureland. Relegated to working the electronic horse racing game, he meets a variety of similarly diffident co-workers that includes the world-weary Joel (Martin Starr), the alluring Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) and the intriguing, confused Em (Kristen Stewart).
James’ time at the park adopts a quaint sense of comfort in its united hopelessness, but there’s still the prospect of purgatory lingering at the start of every morning. The film’s pacing is slow but confident, allowing events to unfold in a relaxed, novelistic way. The structure is appropriate for the literate dialogue and easy-going summer vibe inherent to the amusement park atmosphere.
Adventureland’s multi-faceted characters are its strongest suit and the film incorporates some disarmingly intense moments; in particular two standout scenes where Kristen Stewart (in a very impressive performance) plays her scenes fiery when they could have been maudlin. It’s also admirable how many conflicts remain unresolved – they may get addressed but they don’t receive easy closure. Adventureland isn’t afraid to portray the messy imperfections of real life but doesn’t make you feel glum about them, either.
The marketing for the theatrical release chose to focus on the film’s occasionally bawdy humor. Yes, there is a sequence that contains boner, vomit and urine jokes within a span of five minutes but these moments don’t define the film. Adventureland is profane but it is so in an early 20s-year-old way, not an exaggerated way. The film’s spirit is youthful but its soul is wise.
Filmmaker Greg Mottola cut his teeth directing television shows like Undeclared and Arrested Development before directing the smash hit Superbad. The success of that considerably raunchier film helped him receive funding for Adventureland, a screenplay he’d been developing for several years inspired by his own summer job experience at an amusement park in Long Island. Miramax emphasized its surface-level similarities to Superbad in the marketing while underplaying the film’s contemplative wistfulness.
The DVD packaging indicates they haven’t revised their approach for home video as the cover proudly states “Unrated Bonus Features”. I guess this refers to the occasional swear word uttered in the audio commentary by Mottola and lead star Jesse Eisenberg, because there certainly isn’t anything racy about the featurette or deleted scenes.
Just My Life: The Making of Adventureland runs 16-minutes and features Mottola comparing the film to his real life and discussing casting choices. He also discusses the struggle to find an amusement park that hadn’t been too modernized to pass for 1987 and mentions that Kennywood in Pennsylvania, the real operating amusement park they filmed on, is one of only two amusement parks in the national registry of historic places. Considering the film’s free form structure, one might expect a wealth of juicy deleted scenes, but sadly the three scenes included on the DVD barely run three minutes and only offer an additional joke or two.
The audio commentary features a witty rapport between Eisenberg and Mottola, who advises early on “you’re not getting the Martin Scorsese insight into filmmaking.” Instead they make a lot of high-culture jokes about Carl Jung, Charles Dickens and Swedish literature; although they refrain from describing the film as a Bildungsroman. Eisenberg and Mottola occasionally struggle when trying to keep the track professional but do offer some interesting production stories. For example, SNL members Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig who play the park managers were only able to shoot for four days on the film.
Much of the track is dedicated to discussing the music choices and clearly the film’s soundtrack is incredibly important to Mottola — it boasts an impressive 41 songs from the ’80s and the ’60s. You get Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” but it’s not a kitsch-fest, there’s also two Velvet Underground songs, a lesser-known Rolling Stones track, and even room for an original score by Yo La Tengo.
I think the film has perfect bookending songs with The Replacements “Bastards of Young” beginning the film and INXS’ “Don’t Change” concluding it. Mottola reveals that the Replacements song was written into the script – as many of them were – and that he only received the money for INXS at the 11th hour of post-production. Mottola has a Cameron Crowe-esque understanding of music and the awesomeness of the music used here is second only to the film’s characters.
Unassuming and naturalistic, Adventureland has a remarkable sense of pathos for a young adult comedy. But its appealing ensemble, pitch-perfect soundtrack, and controlled filmmaking help the tougher moments go down smoothly. It’s a hugely enjoyable blend of humor and agony that captures the confused, painful, but open-ended state of late adolescence. You’ll never look at a Six Flags employee the same way again.