Summer jobs are usually the bane of a young person’s existence. They are what you slog through so that you can afford to go to school. They are the drudgery you endure while daydreaming of going to the beach, hanging out with your friends or going to see your favorite band – in other words, pretty much anything else but work. Summer jobs are a necessary evil and no one understands that better than filmmaker Greg Mottola who has masterfully encapsulated these feelings in Adventureland (2009), his follow-up to the popular hit Superbad (2007).
The film opens to the strains of “Bastards of Young” by The Replacements and right away you know you’re in good hands. The year is 1987 and James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college. He is planning to go to Europe for the summer with his buddies; however, his folks can no longer afford to help him pay for it or for grad school at Columbia University in the fall where he hopes to study journalism. James makes some calls, does some legwork and realizes that, with his academic background and a resume with a severe lack of work experience, he’s not qualified for manual labor.
Faced with no other options, James decides to apply at Adventureland, a local amusement park. Much to his surprise, he’s hired right on the spot and put in charge of various games booths. He’s shown how everything works by Joel (Martin Starr), a terminally bored co-worker who’s clearly done this song and dance routine way too many times, telling James at one point, “So, your life must be utter shit or you wouldn’t be here.” While working at the theme park James meets Em (Kristen Stewart), an attractive co-worker with excellent taste in music, and whom he develops a crush on. He also befriends Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s maintenance man, and who is in a local band in his spare time, claiming to have once jammed with Lou Reed. James spends the summer hanging out with Em and his fellow co-workers and learns that if he wants to be a good writer he needs to have some life experiences under his belt.
Adventureland accurately portrays the thankless slog of a minimum wage job (“We are doing the work of pathetic lazy morons,” Joel deadpans) with repetitive tasks, annoying customers, and crap pay. The only thing that makes it remotely bearable is the people James works with – after all, misery loves company. Mottola includes all sorts of nice touches, like the cheesy Foreigner cover band that plays at the local bar, or the mixed tape of music that James makes for Em, which gives the film a more personal feel. This is helped considerably by a great soundtrack that features the likes of Big Star, Crowded House, Husker Du, and The Jesus and Mary Chain – bands responsible for some of the best alternative music of the 1980s. Like the way music was used in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), the music in Adventureland transports you back to another time and immerses you in it.
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have excellent chemistry together and do a good job of playing two young people that want different things out of a relationship. She has her own issues and they keep James always slightly at arm’s length. One hopes that despite the success of the Twilight films, Stewart will continue to make small, more personal films like Adventureland. Eisenberg nails the awkwardness of someone who’s had very few life experiences, especially in the romance and relationship department.
Mottola does a good job of portraying the brief flings that happen over the course of a summer. They are intense while they last even though they rarely do. He also accurately depicts how messy they can be, especially when you’re at that awkward age – your twenties – and are still trying to figure things out. Adventureland has an authenticity in how it feels to be in your twenties and to fall in love for the first time, stumbling through things, learning as you go. Whereas Mottola was basically a hired gun on Superbad, Adventureland comes from a very personal place and has much more heart while still being very funny and entertaining.