“It was the worst job they ever imagined… and the best time of their lives.”
Director: Greg Mottola
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds
Synopsis: In the summer of 1987, a college graduate takes a ‘nowhere’ job at his local amusement park, only to find it’s the perfect course to get him prepared for the real world.
Back when I was a teenager, nostalgia-filled movies about teens in love used to be set in the late 1950s and early 60s. Now that I’ve grown a little older, nostalgia-filled movies about teens in love are set in an era when I had already passed through my teens and was halfway towards becoming a thirty-something. Given that the prime target audience is now under 25-years-old, it’s a wonder that movies like Adventureland, which is set in the balmy days of 1987, get made at all. I see forum messages on IMDb complaining because setting the film in 1987 adds nothing to the storyline, and I wonder whether Hollywood has enough cookie-cutters to cope with popular demand.
It’s almost impossible to set a movie about teens in the not so distant past without evoking wistful memories — accurate or otherwise — of a more innocent time. Even a young man’s consuming preoccupation with losing his virginity acquires a kind of innocence when filtered through a quarter of a century. And while Adventureland is more sophisticated than your typical sex-crazed teen pic, no story about teenagers finding their way in the world would be realistic if it didn’t devote a good share of its storyline to this pursuit.
James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is the young man in question here. His plans for a summer-long holiday in Europe before going to college in New York are scuppered when his father’s income is downgraded, possibly as a result of his incipient alcoholism. In order to raise the funds necessary to enable him to attend college, James is forced to abandon his plans for the holiday and find a job for the summer. The trouble is, James has no experience — ‘per se’ — which is why he ends up accepting a job at the eponymous fairground.
Adventureland is a run-down affair, managed by an enthusiastic couple, Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), who make ends meet by ensuring nobody ever wins the ‘big ass panda’ and making all other prizes equally difficult to win. Much to his dismay, James is set to work on the horse racing game rather than on one of the rides, and finds it difficult to summon up much enthusiasm for his work. The long days are made bearable, however, by his workmates. There’s Joel (Martin Starr), highly-intelligent, Jewish, a disaster with the girls; Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the fairground’s good looking maintenance man, who uses his job to target young girls despite being married, Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), who delights in punching James in the groin each time he sees him, and the desirable Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the local sexpot who, in fact, is, like James, still a virgin. And then there’s Em (Kristen Stewart), an intelligent and thoughtful girl to whom James takes a shine.
Greg Mottola’s superior script takes time getting to know most of these characters so that they’re not just stereotypical filler for a plot which, when you get right down to it, has little new to offer. We grow to like each of them because Mottola refrains from drawing them with strokes that are too broad. There are no real bad guys in this movie — even Connell, who regularly cheats on his wife with his fairground conquests, isn’t at heart a bad person. But he is an adult, and in this movie all the adults are a little screwed up. Perhaps it’s this that makes the youngsters so likeable. For all their romantic problems, their lives are relatively stress-free and uncomplicated. They’re straddling that threshold between childhood freedom and adult responsibility, and like all of us when we were that age, they don’t realise how precious those rare years are. That’s not to say the story is concerned with wholly trivial matters — although it does tend to skirt around issues like James’s father’s alcoholism. A number of sub-plots exist solely to provide timely developments in the main plot, and some characters seem to disappear for lengthy periods, but the story remains engaging at all times. There’s also a killer soundtrack of ‘80s songs that will no doubt sound incredibly cheesy to anyone who wasn’t at the party in ’87, but which will effortlessly transport those who were there back to the era of big hair and bigger shoulder pads.