Fans of "Superbad" might consider "Adventureland" to be a colossal letdown. Both movies are directed by Greg Mottola. And although both movies share an underlying sense of adolescent pathos, these teen flicks are polar opposites. One is a very sweet, hilarious and endlessly entertaining coming-of-age movie -- and the other one is "Adventureland."
"Adventureland," unlike "Superbad," was scripted by Mottola. (Isn't it a shame that "Superbad" co-writer/co-star Seth Rogen was too busy shooting movie after movie to take time and, at least, script-polish this thing?) Whereas "Superbad" was a somewhat autobiographical take on Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg's teenage experiences, "Adventureland" is all about Mottola. And apparently, Mottola's teen years were 15 different kinds of bad.
Set in Pittsburgh circa 1987, it depicts the Mottola stand-in is James (Jesse Eisenberg, always available to play awkward teens), a pontificating, pedantic yutz ready to head off to Europe for the summer before going to Columbia in the fall. It turns out his parents suddenly don't have money for either. (Thanks, Reagan!)
Strapped for cash, he goes job hunting. But the only job the limited-experience James can get is working games at Adventureland, a pitiful excuse for an amusement park run by a husband and wife ("SNL" regulars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) who urge him never to let anyone win a giant panda. Unfortunately, they're in short supply.
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Although life couldn't be more hellish for the virginal James, he's thankfully sharing this descent into the lower-class abyss with some cool people, like Joel (Martin Starr -- yes, Bill Haverchuck is in the heazy!), a pipe-smoking intellectual who always looks at the glass half ironically. James also meets Em (Kristen Stewart, once again working her fidgety, willowy, please-love-me-because-I-need-help shtick), an uninhibited arcade girl who James predictably begins to get sweet on.
Little does he know that the tortured Em has been secretly getting intimate with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the married maintenance man who impresses pretty young thangs with highly fabricated stories of jamming with Lou Reed. Although he seems, just from that description, like a scuzzy character, he's mostly like everyone else in this movie: quietly miserable. He's such a pathetic sham of a man (his rendezvous with Em mostly take place in his mother's basement), you almost end up feeling sorry for him the most. (I know what you're thinking: "Me feeling sorry for Van Wilder?" It shocked me, too.)
Therein lies the blatant allure of "Adventureland." It's a coming-of-age tale most men will know all too well. Who among us didn't work in a dead-end job as a youngster, get blitzed in the parking lot with friends, long for someone who was out of your league -- and yet not exactly worthy of your love -- while we waited for life to happen? Man, there are some thirtysomething film critics I know who still feel that way.
However, I can't buy all of this. Even with its built-in nostalgia factor shamelessly roping in some fondly reminiscing guys, it's hard for me to feel sympathy for a middle-class kid whose teen years are still more exciting and captivating than mine ever were. Lemme see if I got this straight, Mottola: You spent one summer goofing off at a discount Six Flags, hanging out with awesome people and getting close to a chick who usually digs vampires? Boo-freakin-hoo!
But more important, it suffers from the same thing "Superbad" successfully avoided: it takes the secret life of the American teenager so painfully serious it ends up becoming tedious.
Despite its almost refreshing moments of tomfoolery (mostly provided on the spot by Hader and Wiig), for an hour and 47 minutes (it seems longer!), we're forced to take in a teen dramedy plastered with mind-numbing melancholy. It virtually refuses to laugh at its own lapses into pensive pretension and fails to expose teenage life as the farcical shared experience it is.
You walk into "Adventureland" expecting it to be a wild, enjoyable ride. Instead, you get another ride, one that leaves you confused, dizzy, almost in tears, ready to vomit. I so need my "Superbad" DVD right now!