I’m positive “Adventureland” had a breathtaking original screenplay. The finished product hints at the magnificence of a layered, nuanced piece of writing that captures the bewildered minimum-wage happenings a cluster of young people encounter on their way to the finality of adulthood; however, very little of that character shading and dramatic ambition survived the brutal journey to the screen. It’s fantastic to observe “Adventureland” reach out and seek a timeless youthful uprising feel, but the film’s eventual realization is a crushing disappointment.
As his last year of college winds down, James (Jesse Eisenberg) dreams of a summer in Europe to expand his horizons. With the money tight at home, James is forced to take a job at Adventureland, Pittsburgh’s worst theme park, run with questionable safety and food preparation requirements by Bobby (Bill Hader, joined by Kristen Wiig).
Loathing the work, James takes comfort in the sarcastic employee camaraderie (including Martin Starr and Margarita Levieva), turning a romantic eye toward the reclusive Em (Kristen Stewart). While the summer drones on and pot and booze are consumed daily to drown out the prickly park guests, James tries to make sense of Em’s mounting troubles and his own budding desires, leading him to accept advice from the park’s lothario handyman, Mike (Ryan Reynolds).
“Adventureland” resembles a haphazardly stitched together movie that was forced to make sense of hours upon hours of summertime blues footage and various intricate subplots. I won’t go so far as to brand the film a mess, but considering the filmmaking proficiency that director Greg Mottola demonstrated before with “The Daytrippers” and “Superbad,” his inability to juggle the emotional infrastructure of “Adventureland” is a disappointment.
The idea of “Adventureland” is to step back in time to a place of virginal worry; the last year of passable adolescence before the hammer falls and maturity comes crashing in. The curious, wandering cinematography symbolizing the last gasp of social indifference is Mottola’s greatest accomplishment, capturing the Pittsburg malaise and substance-fueled mischief, buoyed by a flood of on-the-nose 80’s alternative and pop hits. If there’s one lasting impression to be made by the film, it’s clearly that Mottola had the time of his life picking out the tunes, one of which actually makes it into the framework of the story as a running gag.
Where “Adventureland” lost me is in the sheer number of stories it wants to tell. Finding the whole park crew interesting, the film leaps around trying to maintain worthy arcs for the actors. With limited time to digest James’s multifaceted aches, taking focus away from the character weakens the ultimate invitation of the story: to observe his accelerated cognizance. Instead, the gang bombs around the park pulling pranks and trading smooches, but nothing gels as the coming-of-age event the script is reaching for. Mottola doesn’t even show much interest in the park itself, refusing to let the audience savor the bigger picture of dilapidation and carny swindle, only showing the grounds in frustrating fragments.
Any enjoyment or basic investment I pulled from the film arrived in the brittle shards of behavior from the cast, who do the best they can with the uneasy dramedy tone of the piece, though a few actors, namely Stewart and Eisenberg, fail to break the tiresome acting bells and whistles that have come to define their careers. Still, there are a few gem performances to be hoarded here, spotlighted within any depiction of workplace rumormongering and vocational frustration.
With the diverse cast, golden growing pain era, and an appetizing plot of consistent heartbreak, I wanted to treasure “Adventureland” for the film it was aspiring to be. Instead, I was distracted by an episodic feature that holds little focus where it counts the most and remains free of genuine gravitas, even with a Replacements-heavy soundtrack around to purchase some credibility.