Miramax is marketing Adventureland using the ol’ bait-’n’-switch. Check out the poster: In big letters, right next to the title, are the magic words, “From the director of Superbad” — as in the sweet and funny but extra-raunchy Superbad, one of the most successful comedies of the last decade. As in the second-biggest money-maker (behind Knocked Up, ahead of The 40-Year-Old Virgin) from the Judd Apatow mafia.
So you’d assume Adventureland is a nasty comedy with a soft center. It’s not. At least, not often enough. Adventureland is all soft stuff, meaningless soft stuff at that, with only a little comedy sprinkled in — like a Dairy Queen Blizzard where they short you on cookie dough. It’s another coming-of-age picture, set in 1987 in a bleak amusement park, centered on a kind of young person movies almost never examine: the fresh college graduate headed for grad school.
When his father’s finances go south, the 20-ish James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is forced to cancel his post-college summer in Europe and find work to help pay for his upcoming studies at Columbia. His liberal-arts degree has made him introspective and erudite; it has not made him employable. (“I’m not even qualified for manual labor,” James tells his parents.) He can’t get the crummy job he aspires to, operating rides at the local down-at-heel amusement park. Instead he ends up on the very bottom rung, running their dubious midway games.
The things that happen to James are the things that happen to every melancholy fellow in a movie like this: He meets the right girl, he flirts with the wrong one, he gets drunk a lot and high a little, he learns that his parents are fallible, and he intuits a bit of the Meaning of Life with an even lonelier friend. The difference between James and most characters like him is that because of his education, he can bring an existential perspective to his situation.
Nothing wrong with a movie like that. But when a picture has a pedigree like this one — and makes Superbad promises — the ol’ bait-’n’-switch is a bigger letdown than usual.
There is some good stuff in Adventureland, including an extra-fun ’80s-pop soundtrack. Look for hilarious turns from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. There’s also Ryan Reynolds, a favorite of mine for his knife-edge ability to switch between sincerity and sarcasm. And Apatow disciple Martin Starr gets to play a character with some real sadness, an opportunity the young man earned through his memorable performances in lighter roles.
But Adventureland is less than the sum of its promising parts. Besides there being too little comedy, there’s no moment of insight when James learns something unique about what it means to grow up; such moments are the hallmark of the best Apatow-related pictures. Instead, we see young people behaving like young people do, to no purpose. Why make a movie about that? Adventureland is less an experience in drama than a portrait of certain people in a certain time, with some goofy, not witty, asides. It is a lot like Dazed and Confused, set almost exactly a decade later.
It’s 1987. Boy gets degree. Boy meets girl. Boy idles away the summer. Boy and girl . . . well, you know how this goes.
— Michael Long is a director of the White House Writers Group.