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Adventureland

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 04/05/09 19:45:51

"Eminently skippable."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

The folks in the marketing department at Miramax have a job to do, I realize, but what they’ve done with "Adventureland" is one of the most extreme bait-and-switch jobs I’ve ever seen. The trailer sells a quirky comedy about kids working in an amusement park. The actual film is a rather dreary coming-of-age drama with some witty dialogue and too-broad performances.

Director Greg Mottola, who had a hit two summers ago with Superbad, has cashed in his success to make an autobiographical indie film based on his own experiences working at Adventureland in the late ‘80s, but the era isn’t evoked with any particular flavor or skill — it could as easily unfold in 2007 as 1987.

Mottola’s onscreen avatar is James (Jesse Eisenberg), who finds out he isn’t going backpacking in Europe for his post-college summer — his parents have had a financial setback. So if James expects to save up any money for grad school, he’d better find a job, and the best he can find is working the game booths at Adventureland. There he meets various stock characters indifferently sketched in, including the laid-back but troubled Em (Kristen Stewart), with whom he falls in love. Why? Because she’s there, I guess; Mottola’s script offers little other reason. James is a virgin, saving himself for the right girl; his choice in this movie is between the serenely dull Em and the more flashily dull Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), who is always spoken of by the park’s young men in the same awed tone: “Lisa P is back!” Lisa P may be an airhead, but she’s alive, and Margarita Levieva turns in the most enjoyable performance without making Lisa P an annoying or pitiable stereotype.

Everyone else in Adventureland seems to move underwater, in the depths of self-loathing. Even the standard I-love-the-’80s soundtrack, particularly Falco’s admittedly noxious “Rock Me Amadeus,” is used not for nostalgia or to set the scene but to oppress and depress the characters. (An exception: Crowded House’s always-welcome “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”) Life in 1987, according to Mottola, was a cultural wasteland with bad haircuts (Kristen Stewart is notably spared) and Reagan honking away on the tube while your dad snores in the living room. The adults are as disappointing as in any John Hughes flick; your dad will marry a badly wigged status-seeker a year after your mom dies, your husband will carry on affairs in his mother’s basement. There's no satirical charge to any of this; the movie simply has no life.

In Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater looked back fondly on 1976 and the kids he knew back then. Mottola looks back on 1987 coldly, with no sense that the kids he knew were worth getting to know in the first place. (James’ oldest friend routinely punches him in the balls, and a newer acquaintance, played by Martin Starr as a pee-wee saturnine intellectual, doesn’t act as if he’d miss James were he to fall off the planet tomorrow.) Adventureland seems only to have been made because Mottola had the power to make it; he has nothing fresh to say about young love or jobs from hell, though I did enjoy hearing the skinny on various amusement-park scams.

There is an actual Adventureland, on Long Island, and I can’t help noticing that the park Mottola worked at and remembers so disdainfully makes no mention of his film on its website (www.adventureland.us). I also notice they’re hiring. Mottola probably shouldn’t bother applying.

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