Summer Movies: Adventureland

Adventureland (2009) is a film that people rarely talk about. Lots of people saw it when it came out – it is directed by Greg Mottola, who also directed Superbad (2007), and it stars Kristen Stewart, who was in Twilight (2008) shortly before this film came out. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places, but Adventureland seems to have disappeared from film critics’ collective consciousness. It is one of my favourite movies, anyway.

This is another one of those movies that feels like summer. I really like Ian Nathan’s review in Empire – he notes that the movie has “swathes of balmy warmth like a summer evening”. It totally does. This movie is warm, yet melancholy. It is not one of those movies set in the 1980s where everyone goes to high school and wears leg warmers while listening to Simple Minds. Critics have pointed out that this film subtly sprinkles 80s artifacts throughout its soundtrack and set design.

The soundtrack is outstanding, with each song fitting perfectly into that “warm yet melancholy” feeling. James (Jesse Eisenberg) and Em (Kristen Stewart) watch Fourth of July fireworks while “Don’t Dream, It’s Over” echoes over the sound system. The film opens with images of out-of-focus amusement park lights, while “Here She Comes Now” plays over the credits. “Pale Blue Eyes” becomes James and Em’s favourite “bummer” song to listen to together. Connell (Ryan Reynolds) mistakenly refers to “Satellite of Love” as “Shed a Light on Love”. What a dick. Ian Nathan points out that the music used in the film skews more alternative, rather than bubblegum poppy.

This film truthfully portrays the misery of working a part-time summer job when you are young and broke. James’ father (Jack Gilpin) is downsized, therefore James had to give up his summer plans of backpacking across Europe, and then attending grad school at Columbia in the fall. Lisa P (Margarita Levieva) has to work at Adventureland because her father got injured at his job. Em spends her days at the park in order to escape her father (Josh Pais) and her stepmother, Francy (Mary Birdsong), whom her father married immediately after Em’s mother died. These characters are not financially, or emotionally well-off. Working a shitty job allows them to escape their family problems, gives them a chance to socialize with others in similar situations, and provides them with at least a little money to last them through the school year.

It is monotonous going to same place every day for 8-12 hours, wearing the same uniform every day, and hearing the same songs play over the loudspeakers all day long. James expresses his frustration with the amount of times “Rock Me Amadeus” is played at Adventureland. It can be tough working a crappy job, especially when customers cheat at the carnival games, and even threaten you with violence in order to get a “giant ass panda”. The film portrays the monotony and misery of working a low-income part-time job, but it also shows us that these jobs can lead to positive friendships and even romantic relationships. Em’s secret affair with (married) Connell causes drama at the park, but in the meantime, Em and James fall in love, and James becomes great friends with Joel (Martin Starr).

This film looks and sounds beautiful, and the performances are nuanced and quietly brilliant. On paper, James sounds like a pretentious white “intellectual” dude – but Jesse Eisenberg is a smart and talented actor. Yes, James is intellectual, and he is interested in scholarly pursuits (he wants to be a journalist who visits mental hospitals and prisons around the world, like Charles Dickens did), but he is never pretentious. He is always genuine. He is poetic and romantic, and he loves Lou Reed. He is perfectly matched with the equally soft-spoken Em, who also loves Lou Reed and studies at NYU during the school year. They understand each other, and find comfort in the honest conversations they are able to have with each other. Joel is also an intellectual “nerd”, who loves Russian literature and smokes out of a pipe (“nice pipe, grandpa!” shouts one of the jock-types who works at Adventureland, as he throws a corn dog at Joel). Even the characters who are considered “vapid” or vain have a warm humanity to them. Lisa P is the “pretty girl” of the park, whom all the males gaze at and want to have sex with – but she is a fully-developed human who worries about her injured father, and wants to spend time with her friends, dancing and drinking and sitting by the pool. Sure, these are not “intellectual” pursuits like reading Renaissance poetry, but Lisa P isn’t any less of a person than James or Em. This film does not judge any of its characters. Not even Connell, the cheater and liar – he is still a person with feelings, just trying his best to live his life.

Adventureland is quiet and smart, with a beautiful soundtrack, and some gorgeous, warm, summery cinematography. The characters are interesting and multi-dimensional – each person fucks up, but each person also has redeeming characteristics. Because that’s how people are. Greg Mottola directs comedies, and while this isn’t a straight-up Jonah Hill/Michael Cera-style comedy, there are many funny moments. The jokes are neatly woven into the melancholy conversations in this film (“would you stop saying ‘intercourse’?”). The thing I love best about this movie is that it’s not all about summer fun & sun & vacations – it’s about sad, difficult things. Summer is not just fun and GAMES GAMES GAMES in Adventureland.

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