More than 10 years ago, Greg Mottola made a near-perfect indie gem, The Daytrippers, about a woman who suspects her husband of cheating and embarks on a car ride from hell to Manhattan in a wood-paneled station wagon with her squabbling parents, her kid sister, and her kid sister’s pretentious boyfriend. It was funny, it was wise, it was drolly hip. Then Mottola kind of disappeared for several years, mostly directing TV shows. Finally, he resurfaced in 2007 with the hilarious blockbuster Superbad—a film I actually loved, but that didn’t share the intimate indie sensibility of his first feature.
It’s no surprise that the ads for Adventureland trumpet: “From the Director of Superbad!” (I mean, what are they supposed to say: “From the guy who directed a few really good episodes of Arrested Development?). But that’s slightly misleading. In fact, if you split the difference between The Daytrippers and Superbad, you pretty much haveAdventureland, which has some moments of broad humor but mostly works as a sensitive and earnest coming of age story. It focuses on brainy college graduate James (loveable Jesse Eisenberg) who, in the summer before grad school, discovers that he is hopelessly unqualified for any job. So he takes the work of the desperate and unemployable—running the games at seedy amusement park Adventureland.
Adventureland is ripe with period detail and nostalgia. The year is 1987 and everything— from the ringed T-shirts the staffers have to wear, to the soundtrack both good (The Replacements) and intolerable (Rock Me Amadeus) wafting from the speakers, to the corn dogs that are often used as projectiles, to the lazy, flirty banter among the help—just feels right. Of course, there is a girl, Em (Kristen Stewart, much more vital and appealing than she is inTwilight)—wise and tomboyish and filled with mystery. Judd Apatow regular Martin Starr is on hand as James’s pal, a pipe-smoking loner who reads Gogol and spouts nihilistic philosophy. SNL vets Kristen Wig and Bill Hader are funny as the no-nonsense carnies who run the show, often screaming at their patrons. There’s even a popular girl (Margarita Levieva) in Daisy Dukes who vies for James’s affection and torments the boys by dancing lazily in front of her carousel.
No, there may not be a dizzying 3-minute visual homage to the male organ (a la Superbad) but Adventureland is a smart and gentle film that evokes lazy, endless summers and horrible jobs that were actually kind of awesome.