Directed by Greg Mottola
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader
Release date: April 3, 2009
We’ve always been told not to judge a book by its cover. That practice is a lot easier in theory than in execution, especially with movies. Before its release, the level of expectation of a movie lives and dies by its trailers and advertising. But all the hype in the world doesn’t replace actually sitting through the movie and forming your own conclusion.
Set in a summer in the late 1980s, Adventureland is the story of James Brennen (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent college graduate who, in lieu of his family’s financial difficulties, is forced to forgo his planned summer in Europe to move home and get a job to pay for college. After being turned down for everything else he reluctantly takes a job at a local amusement park where he begins an awkward relationship of sorts with one of his co-workers, Emily (Kristen Stewart).
There is enough material in that description for some really good comedy; the kind of comedy you would expect from writer/director Greg Mottola given that his name and resume is plastered across every advertisement, trailer, and sandwich board trying to sell you this movie. After the success Superbad, which he also directed, it would seem that making another comedy would be the perfect way to respond. Apparently being easier in theory than execution applies to everyone. To make matters worse, he has no one to blame but himself.
When you write a movie that is based in a period of time different than the one in which you created it, you are attempting to capture a specific mood. When used properly it can add depth to the story beyond its characters and their actions. For example, Dazed and Confused tells a very similar story of a group of young people in the summer between school years attempting to discover themselves, which happens to be set in a distinct period of time. Beyond the soundtrack, that movie and its characters evoked the spirit of the 1970s by reflecting the American culture during that time without condescension. On the other hand, Mottola didn’t gain anything by setting Adventureland in the 1980s. Save for a few songs and a title card at the beginning of the movie, there was barely even a hint of anything that identified the movie with the timeframe in which it was set. I expected more from a movie set in a decade synonymous with overindulgence and excess than people moping around whining about their self-induced misfortunes for two hours.
Beyond my criticism, the general public is going to fall for one of the oldest forms of advertising fraud — the bait and switch. They’ll watch the trailer and find it fairly amusing. And why not? It plays heavily on the inclusion of Bill Hader, who plays Bobby, the park owner, and the fact that is “from the director of Superbad“. Then they’ll see the movie and realize that while he is the best part of the movie, Hader is barely in it and that Superbad reference was a plant to get them in their seat to watch something completely different. I understand the idea of selling your idea by finding commonalities between like products for desired connectivity to your target audience, but when the products are from such varying ends of the spectrum, it seems a little unfair.
Just so we’re clear, I wasn’t disappointed that it was supposed to be funny and it wasn’t. I could have swallowed that pill; it just isn’t a funny movie. It’s more of a teenage drama with some funny parts. And while I was annoyed with the misdirected marketing, I could have gotten passed it if the movie was good on its own merit; there was nothing I felt I could identify with. I mean, I live in a town that has an Adventureland amusement park just as lame as the one in the movie. I never worked there but I’ve been there enough times to know that it would have sucked. Plus, I love cheesy 80s music and I liked Superbad — I just couldn’t find anything I really liked about this movie, except for Bill Hader. But then again, I thought he only did comedy so what do I know.
And there’s the rub.
* out of ****