Ah, those shitty jobs you had as a teen. Remember how your elders dismissed your complaints with knowing smirks: "Character building!"; "Welcome to the working world"; and "Maybe now you'll study harder."
Years later (or even later that summer), you realized they were right. And, if you were especially adept at making dreadful choices in dead-end jobs, you might still be dining out on the time-burnished anecdotes of those now-oh-so-hilarious days.
That's certainly the case for writer-director Greg Mottola, who transformed his own youthful travails at an amusement park into Adventureland, a coming-of-age comedy set amid the bumper cars, balloon races and barfing kids.
For Pittsburghers, the biggest star in the film is Kennywood. The actual Adventureland was unavailable, so Mottola, a Pittsburgh Filmmakers alum, moved the action to the West Mifflin park. The attraction names have been changed and the park grubbed up a bit, but Kennywood's singular charms are recognizable, and a delight to see up on the big screen.
But back to our story: It's 1987, and James (Jesse Eisenberg, from The Squid and the Whale) hopes to spend the summer before grad school touring Europe. Instead, a money crunch lands him back in suburban Pittsburgh and running a game booth at Adventureland. It's a job whose indignities run that gamut from the stupid T-shirt uniform and working with the unwashed public to hearing the adjacent ride play "Rock Me, Amadeus" all summer long.
But, a deadpan indie-rock girl named Em (Kristen Stewart) works the nearby booth; they meet when James accidentally lets a patron win an unwinnable "giant-ass-panda." Add this budding friendship to those developing with the park's other tolerable wage-slaves, such as nerdy iconoclast Joel (Martin Starr), super-hot Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) and seemingly cool older dude, Mike (Ryan Reynolds). Mix with balmy summer nights and plenty of booze, weed and Hüsker Dü -- and maybe this job is kinda fun after all.
Mottola scored a big hit two years ago with Superbad, which was cheerfully vulgar and relatively raucous. And while this film is about similar, if older, neglected nice guys and less-likelys, it's closer to a wry romantic comedy than a hi-jinks-filled gut-buster. It's surprisingly sweet and relatively chaste. (There's some making out, but the R-rating is for language and all that inhaling.)
To his credit, Mottola manages to walk a fine line, keeping Adventureland's spirit and vibe true to its smart, normal-to-offbeat protagonists, while still checking off the genre's expected complications: James is a virgin; Em has a secret inappropriate boyfriend; opportunities are bungled, mix-tapes are made and necessary lessons about life, love and Lou Reed are learned.
After sitting through so many by-the-book rom-coms, I was elated that Mottola avoided the genre's standard frantic plot devices and gooey romance. Adventureland instead offers likable ordinary characters; no cartoonish villains (the "bad" guy is simply pathetic); and a real appreciation for those lazy, hazy days of Youth Before Cell Phones, when just hanging around doing nothing was something to do.
Like with a roller coaster, you know exactly where this film is going to end up, but the pleasure is in the ride. Or as they say at Adventureland: "a funtastic time."
Starts Fri., April 3.
- You must be this dorky to work this booth: Jesse Eisenberg and Martin Starr