James (Jesse Eisenberg) has big plans for the summer. He’s just graduated from college with a comp lit degree, and headed to Europe with his roommate before studying journalism at Columbia. But when a pay cut forces his father to renege on his promise to help fund his trip, James is forced to trade the cathedrals and castles of the Old World for a rigged game booth in Pittsburgh’s shoddy Adventureland amusement park and earn his own way to New York in the fall. It’s a rude awakening for James, whose elitist and entitled attitudes quickly evaporate as he finds he’s not even qualified to work the better “rides” job at the second-rate park.
Thus Adventureland initiates James’ coming of age. The last virgin standing in his crowd, James’ “problem” with women, we are led to believe, is that he is both too honest about his inexperience and too eager, not for sex, but for love. Though his college buddies chide him for revealing too much (“You don’t want ‘virgin’ to be your signifier”), James is prone to making compulsive admissions, so that he is repeatedly rejected and alone. That is, until he meets Em (Kristen Stewart), a pretty but troubled NYU grad student and James’ co-worker at the park.
After confessing to her that he’s a virgin, James clumsily asks Em about her history: “So, what about you… and intercourse?” She’s even more frank than he is, admitting she’s had sex with plenty of people and no, she was never in love with any of them. But instead of this precluding her as a serious love interest for James, his perception of Em as emotionally “pure” puts them on equal footing, uniquely suited for each other.
Thankfully, Adventureland doesn’t belabor the point about James losing his virginity. Since he isn’t just mindlessly running around trying to get laid, we are spared the usual crass jokes we might expect on this topic, the film deriving its humor instead from his frequent near-humiliations that leave us cringing with second-hand embarrassment.
James is in the process of losing his emotional naiveté. His sincerity and idealism make him childlike, only understanding others as reflections of himself and his own desires. He never wonders why Em works at Adventureland, assuming she’s there for the same reasons he is, even after he finds out she doesn’t need the money (in reality, she’s returned to the site to gain proximity to happier times when her mother was alive, not that James grasps this). In his view, and in especially the gloss he allows himself on her sexual history, James totally misses the emotional pressure afflicting Em. When a disturbing truth about her comes to light, he responds with his usual lack of filtering and can only rage and worry about how he feels.
Likewise, James’ view of his parents as assured sources of financial and emotional support comes undone when they can’t pay for his European trek or grad school, but he can only see how his father’s career problems affect him directly. When James wrecks the family car after drinking a bottle of bourbon he finds under the front seat, he not only loses all his summer savings, since now he has to pay for the car, but he also realizes his father’s impotence: he’s a drunk. Recognizing how weak he has been himself, James is finally spurred to action rather than letting his “New York dreams go up in smoke.”
Adventureland is as tidy and predictable as it sounds. And it falls into that annoying trap that seems to plague this sort of film, relying on an unrelenting ’80s soundtrack to set tones and cue plot points (I don’t think there was a minute of silence). James is also surrounded by stereotypes to make him look relatively complicated, including the nerd (Martin Starr) and the dimwitted hot girl (Margarita Levieva). That’s not to say that Em and their co-worker, a musician named Connell (Ryan Reynolds), aren’t decently fleshed out, but they’re lined up in support of a familiar plot. We know James will learn what he needs to in order to become a man (and what he will earn for it). He finally sees through his own and others’ posturing, and even comes to recognize the sexual double standard that seems to benefit men (“Guys can be shitty, but women can’t?”). Even as James loses his innocence, his endearing earnestness remains intact.