FILM REVIEW: Adventureland gives all the fun of the fair and then some

Going Out
All the fun of the fair – and then some

Daniel CareyCinema
Daniel Carey

IN his childhood memoir ‘The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid’, Bill Bryson remembers the magic attached to the opening of Disneyland in 1955. Bryson’s father was a gifted sportswriter but also a notorious cheapskate, so when Bill was taken on a surprise trip to the theme park, he took his mother aside and asked: “Have I got leukaemia?”
It’s been a long time since an amusement park evoked that kind of wonder in people. Kids are less easily impressed nowadays, and fairground accidents, grotty facilities and unwinnable games have all taken some of the lustre that was once associated with such places. One movie critic recently admitted that he found funfairs ‘disturbing’.
‘Adventureland’ is set in a theme park in Pittsburgh. It’s 1987, and none of the people working there are particularly pleased about it. Sharp practice is everywhere – customers are invited to try and win a giant panda (which is impossible), knock a hat off one of the circling mannequins (half of them are glued on), or throw a ball through an oval-shaped basketball hoop.
While ‘Big’ had Tom Hanks in a carnival only briefly, the bulk of the action in ‘Superbad’ director Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical tale is set in and around the games and rides. Adventureland – the name of the park – is the the only place where James (Jesse Eisenberg from ‘The Squid and the Whale’) can find a summer job, which he needs if he’s to go afford college in New York.
James is a bright guy with ambitions of being a travel essayist, but he’s a little too open about his recent romantic heartbreak – the ending of an 11-day relationship. A virgin, he once turned down sex with a former girlfriend after reading a Shakespearean sonnet which made him realise he didn’t love her.
There he meets a motley crew, including Joel (Martin Starr) an intellectual studying Russian literature and Slavic studies; Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a married male maintenance guy whose stories of jamming with Lou Reed gets him the girls; the glamorous siren Lisa P; and his psychopathic former best friend Frigo, whose speciality is punching him in the privates. The husband-and-wife team who own the park, Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), are hilariously barmy.
The love interest is provided by Em (Kristen Stewart from ‘Twilight’), who has a few secrets of her own, and there are shades of ‘(500) Days Of Summer’ as she often plays the guy’s role to James’s girl.
The acting is decent, the soundtrack has a few classics, and some of the period details are great. There’s also an extraordinary amount of weed smoked. The script is smart and includes some memorable throwaway lines. Em, upset at how her stepmother has redesigned her house, describes it as ‘barf-a-rific’. James, recalling that he caught his mother snooping in Italian, mentions in passing: “So I switched to writing in Italian”. As you do.
‘Adventureland’ is not laugh-out-loud funny, but it is frequently amusing, and there are some decent set-pieces – one minor character’s ‘air-drumming’ of a Rush song comes to mind. It is also mercifully free of the gross-out humour which seems to have taken over mainstream Hollywood comedies. It also has its tender moments, and the characters are sufficiently well drawn that you understand why they do what they do.
The ending may be a little too neatly tied up for some, but overall, ‘Adventureland’ is one of the most believable coming-of-age dramas of recent years. And it’s better than most carnivals.