It's hard to remember the last time a film suffered such horrific marketing malpractice as "Adventureland."
Those expecting a light coming of age comedy, led into the theatres by the film's trailer and TV ads, will be quite surprised by the actual film before them. "Adventureland" is still in the same thematic territory as director Greg Mottola's previous film "Superbad." It's about outsider teenagers coming of age and grappling with the challenges of sex. But it has more in common with arthouse teen films like "Ghost World" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien" than recent mainstream raunch-fests.
James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college with a liberal arts degree. He's eager to join his roommate for a summer of backpacking through Europe before moving to New York City for graduate school at Columbia. Life has other plans for him, though.
His parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) inform him over dinner that his father was demoted at work and they won't be able to give him his graduation present of $900 to fund his Europe trip. They also can't help pay his rent for New York that fall. He'll have to find a summer job. After several unsuccessful bids at employment James caves and accepts a job working in the carnival games at Adventureland, a local amusement park.
There he meets quite the collection of oddballs. There's the loud co-owner Bobby (Bill Hader) and his wife Paulette (Kristen Wiig) who run Adventureland on the cheap by rigging the games and serving spoiled corndogs. James quickly befriends Joel (Martin Starr,) a fellow intellectual and eccentric, who educates him in the ins and outs of the games at Adventureland. He prefers Joel to Frigo (Matt Bush) an old "friend" from elementary school who routinely punches James in the balls and serves as the film's loud, obnoxious jerk. (Every teen movie has to have at least one such character.) Ryan Reynolds plays Mike Connell, a thirtysomething handyman who fixes broken rides, nurses a failing music career, and cheats on his wife with the younger girls that work at Adventureland.
Then there's James's love interest, Em (Kristen Stewart of "Twilight" fame) who, struggling with her mother's recent death and her father's hasty remarriage, has problems far bigger than James missing out on a summer in Europe. The withdrawn Em wears a Lou Reed t-shirt in many scenes throughout the film and the musician's quiet, tragic spirit hangs over the whole film as several of his songs grace the soundtrack.
"Adventureland" shouldn't be thought of as "Superbad at an amusement park." That's basically the way it was advertised, though. Going in it looked like a sex, drugs, and rock and roll R-rated teen comedy. And it's obvious why that's what Miramax's marketing people had to sell it as. "Superbad at an amusement park" can play in thousands of theatres, draw in the R-rated sex comedy audience, and make money in the "Superbad" neighborhood (it raked in $121 million in 2007.) "Adventureland" advertised as what it is, a dark, intellectual comedy/drama in the independent film tradition, would only play in arthouse theatres and be lucky to make a sixth of the "Superbad" haul.
So don't go into "Adventureland" expecting to laugh with the same frequency and intensity of "Superbad." The film certainly does have several particularly strong comedic sequences but they're islands in a sea of intellectual twentysomething dramatic angst. And that's perfectly acceptable for this overly-dramatic, angsty, twentysomething intellectual.
"Adventureland" is a welcome addition to the outsider coming of age genre. Mottola has crafted a thoughtful film that should find an eager fan base amongst the legions of under-employed liberal arts students and recent graduates. In his characters he's crafted some very real, very tragic people. The film is pervaded almost by a sense of nihilism as James encounters the kinds of people he's only read about in his literature classes: tragic, broken individuals. Mike is a failed musician in a loveless marriage who finds excitement in his life by having affairs with the young girls who look up to him at Adventureland. Em is like so many women: driven into an exploitive relationship by her shattered home situation. And everyone tries to dull the existential pain and boredom with marijuana and alcohol.
You know the film is going for a higher level when it dispenses with its clichés. It's revealed early on in the film that James, despite four years of college, is a virgin. It's a teen film staple to have an awkward male protagonist questing for the Holy Grail of that first sexual encounter. (That's what "American Pie" was all about.) What's refreshing about "Adventureland" is that while the film does introduce this element it doesn't dwell on it and James isn't in a desperate pursuit of it. Midway through the film you've all but forgotten about this semi-sexist standard plot. The film's more concerned with more important subjects.
Yes, "Adventureland" is quite a bit heavier than most of its viewers are likely expecting. But for those in the mood for a more thoughtful film Mottola's "Adventureland" is likely to challenge and entertain.