“Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.” This simple reminder was famously found pasted to the writing desk of Herman Melville, whom, one may reasonably assume, used the words as motivation in his later years, when the author of what many consider the greatest American novel was toiling in relative poverty and anonymity.
Those words might also have served as a slogan for filmmaker Greg Mottola, who made his feature debut with 1996’s scrappy, underappreciated comedy The Daytrippers and has since worked largely as a television director (for scrappy, underappreciated comedies like Undeclared and Arrested Development). After a legitimate hit with 2007’s Superbad, which was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and produced by Judd Apatow, Mottola set his sites on another virginal coming-of-age comedy, albeit one that is less broad and more personal.
The funny, bittersweet Adventureland may not be the Moby-Dick of first-love stories, but it deserves a better fate than the collective shrug with which it was met during its theatrical run.
It is the early summer of 1987, and bookish, introverted James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is a freshly graduated literature major looking forward to exploring the “sexually permissive cultures” of Europe with friends before returning for grad school at Columbia University. The trip, which was to be a gift from his parents, is nixed when James’s father loses his job, forcing the family to move into a working-class suburb of Pittsburgh and forcing James into premature employment.
James, however, quickly learns that his degree qualifies him for little and ends up taking a job at Adventureland, a sad-sack amusement park whose rides and games look like the remains of a run-down traveling carnival that grew too weary to keep traveling. There, he is sentenced to work in games (rides jobs seem reserved for the more physically attractive and overtly upper-crust) with fellow overeducated outcasts like Joel (Martin Starr), who is majoring in Russian literature and Slavic languages and knowingly describes his career track as “cabbie, hot dog vendor, marijuana delivery guy … the world is my oyster.”
James also meets and, over the course of the summer, falls in love with the dour Em (Kristin Stewart, free from the idiocy of Twilight), a pretty but unaffected games coworker with a painful past and a secret.
It’s the type of story that’s been told and retold ad infinitum, but rarely with such humanity, humor and knowingness. The characters may be archetypes, but Mottola and his cast provide them with soul; among the most pleasantly surprising is Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), a trendily fashioned rides worker with a come-hither look who is the object of lust among male Adventureland employees and who turns out to be more than the sum of her carefully coordinated outward parts.
And while Mottola obviously feels great affection for his characters, there is nary a hint of nostalgia in regard to time and place. When the park’s Top 40-looping sound system plays Falco’s Rock Me, Amadeus one too many times, Joel rails, “Fucking sadists!” Meanwhile, Adventureland’s games are rigged, and James is warned by the married management team about the prize hierarchy—specifically, to not under any circumstances award a “giant-ass panda” (as Joel observes, “We pay little Malaysian kids 10 cents a day to make these toys; we can’t just give them away”).
As summer winds down and Adventureland prepares to shutter for the off-season, loves are lost and gained, choices are embraced and lamented, and lives stagnate and evolve.
In a gorgeously filmed scene near the movie’s end, James, Joel and the sack-whacking Frigo (James’s former “best friend … then I turned 4”) sit in the gloaming on a shadowed hillside, drinking and firing bottle-rockets into the rose-tinted sky. As Frigo (Matt Bush) frolics with explosives, James and Joel have a Meaning of Life conversation.
“Herman Melville wrote fuckin’ Moby-Dick,” Joel bemoans, “but he was so poor and forgot by the time he died that in his obituary they called him Henry Melville. You know, like why bother?”
After a moment of thought, James counters: “… he wrote a 700-page allegorical novel about the whaling industry … I hope they call me Henry when I die too.”
“One can only hope,” Joel replies.
Melville got the last laugh. Hopefully Adventureland will too.