“Nobody ever wins a giant-ass panda.”
There are many things that can run through the mind of a college graduate in the weeks following commencement. There is the Everest-sized mountain of student loans on the horizon, the debate over whether or not to find a terrible job to save some money as opposed to finding one in your desired field, realizing that maybe you should’ve majored in something else when you had the chance, how much money you will need to get out of your parents’ house, etc. There is an adjustment period that stems from the fact that for the first time since you were four years old, the entire year hasn’t already been mapped out by educational endeavors. After the pomp and circumstance, one may ask themselves: now what the fuck do I do?
Few movies capture these emotions more perfectly than Greg Mottola’s, autobiographical, bittersweet comedy “Adventureland.” Even though it takes place at a rundown Pittsburgh amusement park in 1987, it provides characters and problems that can’t be constrained by nostalgic window-dressing. I fell in love with this movie before the Miramax logo even left the screen: the anthemic swagger within the opening riff of The Replacement’s “Bastards of Young” gives a taste of the film’s frustrated yet spirited atmosphere (Note to Hollywood: if you want me to love a movie, stick The Replacements and Big Star on the soundtrack).
In that song, Paul Westerberg sings “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success/Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung.” These words will be an apt description of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg). He’s just graduated from college with a degree in literature studies. James is very intelligent, socially awkward and refuses to lower his standards for women; so of course he is still a virgin. He plans on spending the summer in Europe with his friends and getting a Master’s degree in journalism at Columbia in the fall. These plans hit a snag when James’ dad is transferred to another job and is unable to help James pay for his trip and school. James is forced to cancel his trip to Europe and find a summer job, which as every college graduate knows, is easier said than done. He is forced to settle for a job running games at Adventureland, the run-down local amusement park, run by SNL cast members Bill Hader and Kirsten Wiig. All the rides at this place are in various states of disrepair, and nearly all the games are rigged, mostly because the owners can’t afford to buy more prizes. Here is where he meets Joel (Martin Starr, stealing scenes with little to no effort), a sarcastic intellectual who dryly and bluntly observes the ridiculousness of his surroundings, and Em (Kristen Stewart), the easy-going, detached girl who quickly steals James’ heart. But Em is at first more interested in Connell (Ryan Reynolds, playing against type), the older maintenance man who puts on a pathetic facade of coolness (he claims to have played with Lou Reed).
The film is about how these unique characters interact with each other over one very tumultuous summer at this faded, run-down park. There are two key components that make “Adventureland” transcend the trappings of an overy familiar genre. The biggest being the overwhelming sense of authenticity in the film’s time and place. Mottola based the story on his own experiences working at a similar park in Long Island after he graduated from college in the mid-80’s, so the movie feels like a rich slice of life. Adventureland the park almost becomes a character itself; you can smell the fried corn dogs and cotton candy and hear the creaks of the rusted-out rides, along with the horrid mid-80’s music blaring from the fading speakers all day long. But this film can appeal to anyone who had to work a summer job. I worked at a Mobil gas station the summer before I left for college, and I had to deal with situations similar to what James has to deal with: uncooperative customers, music repeated so much you start to think the company is playing it just to punish you (in this film it was the immortal “Amadeus” by Falco, while I had to put up with “Hotel California” by The Eagles for 3 months), but I never developed a relationship with one of my co-workers like James and Em do. Everything about this movie feels lived-in, not sterile. Even though it takes place in 1987, the movie isn’t defined by 80’s nostalgia. There are some digs at the music and fashion of the time, but they don’t dominate the story, they become part of the overall landscape. The soundtrack is dominated by 80’s alt-rock, some of the greatest music ever made, which adds to the movie’s wistful, funny and charming spirit.
But the other major component that makes the film so great and so relatable are the characters themselves. Em, James and Joel are all college-age; the fact that everyone in this movie is out of high school adds a level of maturity and wisdom, as well as dramatic heft. All of the adults are clueless and self-obsessed, they have no connection to the generation they gave birth too. Also, none of these characters really know how they want to proceed in life. James has plans to be a travel journalist, but he tells these plans to people like he spent weeks memorizing them. You can imagine the bullet points next each statement he makes about following in Charles Dickens’ footsteps and whatnot. James would be insufferable if Eisenberg didn’t nail this character exactly right, but thankfully he does. He plays James like a watered-down mix of Holden Caulfield and Woody Allen, although with slightly better people skills. His funny and nuanced portrayal creates a character who finds that the real world can’t be studied in a literature class. His relationship with Em opens up his worldview, even though he doesn’t know how to make it work all the time, which leads to him being tempted by the flirtatious Lisa P (Margarita Levieva). She isn’t put off by James’ sweet and cerebral nature nor his sexual inexperience. She’s attending NYU, but she is also lost and confused. Her mother is dead and she is stuck at home with a wildly conceited stepmother, and she finds a release in her sexual encounters with Connell, who is 10 years older, married and is living off a faded and fraudulent notion that his experience makes him the epitome of cool (Reynolds doesn’t get enough to do, but his low-key work does add some dimension to this scumbag).
Kristen Stewart continues to get a bad rap as an actress. She is terrible in the Twilight movies, but that’s because she is horribly miscast, her passivity doesn’t work in the overheated sexual turmoil that dominates those movies (and because Bella is one of the worst characters in the history of books and movies, but that’s another discussion). But in films as diverse as David Fincher’s “Panic Room” and Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” her subtle, minimalist approach can speak volumes. Her work in “Adventureland” is among her best, hiding a world of hurt, confusion and disappointment behind her sullen exterior. Her bond with James is the soul of the movie, since these two characters find what they are looking for in each other.
Most of the movie’s comedy comes from Martin Starr as Joel. His cutting, deadpan wit and obsession with obscure literature convey another relatable aspect of post-college life: not being able to find an outlet for you field of study and other interests. Not a lot of job opportunities for experts on Russian literature. Starr finds the unbridled frustration beneath all the humor.
I feel like this movie hasn’t been seen by enough people. This film was marketed as another teen sex comedy, similar to “Superbad” (also directed by Mottola). But “Adventureland” is so much more than that. It is a comedy at heart, one that is funny, wise, sad and quietly moving, because it laces with humor at the expense of its time and place with experience and grace. Coming-of-age stories continue to be relevant because everybody can find one to their liking; the raging rebel with too many causes that is Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye,” the overachieving, odd Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” the precocious journalist that is William Miller in “Almost Famous.” Now that I’ve graduated, “Adventureland” is more relatable and knowing than ever. John Lennon once said that life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans. These characters have other plans, and “Adventureland” documents all the life that comes out of them. Just remember that nobody ever wins a giant-ass panda.
Below are some of my favorite songs from this movie. If you don’t love The Replacements, I feel sorry for you.