The opening credits of Adventureland roll out to the tune of The Replacements classic “Bastards of Young,” as clear a statement of the movie’s intentions as the Superbad reference on its poster. The initial effect is: finally! Someone makes a coming of age movie about us, TMT’s core demographic! And then we get The Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now”! And then, after an introductory grad-party scene featuring some token collegiate nonsense about semiotics in which our main man James (Jesse Eisenberg) is jilted by a girl he thought he might have been dating... we get VU again, with “Pale Blue Eyes.” And over the end credits? The Replacements, again (“Unsatisfied”). This repetition, unfortunately, runs from the soundtrack to the action on screen, and the semiotics comment is a little too prescient. Adventureland, for its many frustrating glimmers of potential, relies way too heavily on tropes and character types propped up like so many signs and signifiers; it is more map than movie.
After his Oberlin graduation, James’ parents spring the unhappy news that, due to a salary cut, they will not be able to pay for his planned summer trip through Europe with his wealthy college buddy (who gives him a Ziploc stuffed with spliffs as a consolation prize) or for his New York rent at Columbia's journalism school in the fall. His sparse resume, peaking with a position at the college literary journal, can only get him hired as a carnival game operator at the titular rundown theme park. Desperate to save up for the big move, he accepts. James forges friendships with the depressive, even nerdier Joel (Martin Starr) and slick local hero/park handyman Connell (Ryan Reynolds) to ease the indignities of carny life, but he's more interested in the brooding Emily (Kristen Stewart), who he doesn't realize has a thing going with Connell. Pretty straightforward, but you’d never know it, given how much of the film’s runtime is spent laboriously explicating this very simple premise. Every small plot development is drawn out, and the margins are filled with cardboard caricatures of types familiar to anyone who’s done youthful time in a dead-end job. And the principal characters aren’t that much deeper. Eisenberg plays the nervous, tightly-wound James to perfection, but Stewart is as flat as (I hear) she was in Twilight, and the script doesn’t give her enough to work with anyway. The female characters (all of whom are underwritten except for Emily's stepmother, who's constantly giving herself away as a social climber) lack the believability of James and Joel.
Superbad director Greg Mottola both wrote and directed Adventureland. His script is laden with satisfying little nuggets of dialogue and chuckle-provoking one-liners, but it sounds and unfolds as though it’s been leavened with a healthy dose of Hollywood anti-imagination. This is truly unfortunate, because it seems like Mottola really did set out to make a heartfelt variation on the past few years’ ubiquitous post-adolescent comedy for the sensitive, nerdy indie rock crowd, splitting the difference between Superbad and Rushmore. Instead, we get a formulaic romp through a hodgepodge of Apatow-ish ideas: one moment The 22-Year-Old Virgin, then James and Emily’s Infinite Playlist, and now Weed-from-an-Apple Express. He hits the right notes, but the tune is familiar as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” And this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if there were a better ratio of jokes to exposition, or a better combination of the two. The movie ends up feeling like the direct result of spending too much time waiting for that endless string of studio traffic lights to turn green.
There are certainly moments to love, especially during the rare occasions when the couple that owns and operates the theme park (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) are allowed to shove their way into the foreground. And Adventureland also operates on a surprising layer of socio-economic consciousness not often found in this kind of movie. Class differences are acutely felt in the park employees’ verbalized self-conceptions as well as in their unspoken cues, down to the level of who wears what. James has to work at the park in the first place because his dad is making less money; Joel’s father makes him pay rent on his childhood bedroom; the tempting bad girl’s dad has been laid off; Emily is constantly at odds with her stepmom’s pretensions. So if you catch Adventureland on TV some future lazy Sunday afternoon, don’t turn it off. But you could just as easily spend the $10 you’d drop at the box office on a nickel bag and the entry fee to a similarly dingy fun park. Choose your own adventure.