There's something mildly mesmerising, it must be said, about amusement parks. A kind of cheap magic hovers about them, which is almost instantly undercut by their undeniable corniness. It's a grand facade of otherworldliness, a fact which is probably exacerbated beyond the ability to ignore if you actually happen to work at one, which could not possibly be anything besides utterly tedious. The idiot patrons, the unvarying grind, the endlessly looped musical selections must seem a kind of Purgatory transparently disguised as a place of wonder. It's a carefree facade disguising a kind of empty banality, making it a rather apt metaphor for the 1980s in general-or, for that matter, for post-adolescent malaise. For James Brennan, dreaming of grad school but cast into this candy-colored limbo by financial insolvency, it must feel like some bizarre dream, especially after all the weed of which he's partaken.
Adventureland the movie, like Adventureland the fictional park, is less about narrative and more of a place to spend a few hours soaking up the sights and sounds. The DVD cover promotes it on the basis of being "from the director of Superbad," which, while true, doesn't really paint an accurate picture. This film owes less to the recent string of raunchy comedies from the likes of Judd Apatow than it does to films such as Dazed and Confused and America Graffiti, which nostalgically drifted through the '70s and '60s, respectively, much as Adventureland does through the '80s. Like those seminal hang-out films, it features young protagonists on the cusp of adulthood, preparing to exit the portion of life when everything is about music and chasing girls and trying to make sense of the choices ahead. Barred by circumstances from actually entering the adult world, our characters blunder directionlessly through a holding pattern, interacting as educated but emotionally immature adolescents. James, a self descibed romantic who "reads poetry for fun," is still looking for a girl worth sleeping with, waiting to punch his ticket with some sort of feminine ideal and outwardly wearing his unrestrained honesty as a badge of pride in his high standards. Em Lewin, James' co-worker in the slums of the park's games division, is a girl of apparent means who wants no part of a little rich girl image, dressing down and working an unskilled labor job rather than subsisting off of her family's wealth, a walking bundle of nerves and neuroses, abhorring phoniness while nevertheless sleeping with the married maintenance man, a wanna-be guitarist with a dubious connection to rock legend Lou Reed. Joel is a literary geek with the affectations of a much older man, whose luckless love life is likely not due to impossibly high standards, and then there's Lisa P, the dancing, bubblegum chewing quintessence of the '80s dream girl who's probably less of a catch than her lustful admirers would think. Hell, I practically know most of these people, and like so many of us at that age, none of them really know what to do about the looming spectre of the future. Lisa P probably doesn't know what she'll do about the looming spectre of the following week.
The film is frequently both fun and funny, but it's to director Greg Mottola's credit that he doesn't attempt to steer the proceedings into an outright comedy. Sometimes we laugh in accordance with the fact that life itself is often worth laughing at; at other times it's confusing or awkward, and rarely settles into a single overriding tone. Dialogue is refreshingly conversational and not deliberately clever, blatant movie dialogue of the standard setup-and payoff variety. The soundtrack, in particular, is exemplary. I'm not overfond of '80s music in general, but the musical choices here keenly capture the feeling of the times by employing less obvious choices; nostalgia is often more succinctly stirred by use of songs we haven't heard a million times since their peak of popularity. Crucially, the time period is itself not given overabundant focus, as one would expect of an outright parody feature; eschewing the more extreme examples of what was unquestionably a decade of some truly awful hair and clothes allows the film a more timeless quality. I suspect Mottola, like Lucas before him, is writing of a time fondly remembered, wisely avoiding the pratfalls of attempting to depict modern youth culture from an outsider's perspective. There's a reason John Hughes eventually gave up on making teen movies.
You may notice I've said little about the plot. That's because there's relatively little of it. For some films, this would be a liability; here's it's a relief. It's much more enjoyable to simply watch these people interact as human beings, freed from the constraints of an abundance of structure. Adventureland is both romantic and comedic without, fortunately, being a romantic comedy, bittersweet without wallowing in pointless angst, and an affecting depiction of the sunset days of youth-like Adventureland the park, not a place you'd necessarily want to live, but one that's always nice to revist now and again.
-review by Matt Murray