After Superbad you might think director Greg Mottola is out to make his way as the new Judd Apatow, but what he really wants to be is John Hughes. Mottola’s latest film is Adventureland and though it involves youngsters drinking and smoking and swearing, it couldn’t possibly be further from the raunch-com realm of his previous, McLovin-powered film. Adventureland seems to want desperately to be The Breakfast Club or 16 Candles, or maybe it simply wants to live in the same space those films in, right down to its setting back in good old 1987.
It’s about early twenty-somethings lost in summer break between college and doing the sort of crummy job college kids tend to do when they’re not in class. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) takes a job at Adventureland, because he’s desperate for cash and because without any prior work experience, no one else would hire him. Stranded in Pittsburgh’s most dead-end, run-down theme park he makes friends, smokes weed, and meets a girl.
The girl is Em (Kristen Stewart), a troubled, forthright, and disaffected youth from the next ring toss booth over. Em and James start to hit it off, but there’s complication all around them. There’s the mysterious, rock and roll park handyman Connell (Ryan Reynolds) who may be up to no good. There’s Brennan’s friend Frigo, who won’t stop punching him in the nuts. And there’s Lisa P., the super-hot disco girl who everyone wants but no one seems to be able to get.
Adventureland is pretty low key with Brennan’s life just sort of happening in between drinks and smoking weed. It’s not a comedy exactly, more a slice of life movie following around a few college kids in their final fleeting moments of immaturity. Actually that may be part of the problem. Though we’re told repeatedly these are college kids, none of them look it. The movie feels miscast; Eisenberg, Stewart and the rest, though they give good performances, seem more like High School kids than college sophomores just over the drinking age and well into the first bloom of adulthood. Even for dumb college kids these characters are surprisingly immature. Flip the script, make them all high school seniors, and suddenly Adventureland would make a lot more sense.
It’s also a little hard to understand why this film was set in the 80s. We’re told at the outset that it’s 1987, but there’s little going on in here that’s really all that decade specific. Dropping movies down in the decade of excess appears to have become the default for screenwriters unwilling to deal with the complications of modern technologies like cell phones and the internet. Maybe that’s why Mottola was so dead set on doing his movie there, but other than a few missing technological components there’s no real reason to do it, and for most of the movie you’ll probably forget about it. Wasted effort.
I think Adventureland wants to be one of those great John Hughes movies from the decade in which its swimming, but it doesn’t have the poignancy to pull something like that off. Instead it’s a capable, slightly funny dramedy about a few kids getting drunk, making out, and falling in love. Minor players like Bill Hader kill with carefully spaced comedic relief, but a big time coming of age tale this isn’t. Adventureland will entertain and be quickly forgotten.