At Quality 16, Showcase and the State

Courtesy of Miramax

2.5 out of 5 stars

There are many details about the world of college-student, stay-at-home summer jobs that “Adventureland” gets scarily right. Employees routinely smuggle drugs and alcohol to work right under the noses of oblivious bosses who take their jobs way too seriously. Parents walk in on after-hours make-out sessions, then try to make conversation. All the workplace types are there: the inexplicably hot girl, the musician dude in his late 20s whom everyone else thinks is the coolest guy ever and the weirdo Jewish atheist.

“Adventureland” captures its intended atmosphere. It also makes the most out of its 1987 time period with a cheese-tastic soundtrack that includes music from Whitesnake and a Foreigner tribute band.

The problem is that writer-director Greg Mottola couldn’t decide whether he should exaggerate the familiarity for comic effect (like he did previously in “Superbad”) or use the characters as stand-ins for the whole of disaffected youth (like John Hughes did so brilliantly in “The Breakfast Club”). Ultimately, he plays it safe and tries grabbing from both ends of the spectrum. But any carnie worth his salt knows that playing it safe never won anyone a giant-ass stuffed panda.

Protagonist James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, “The Squid and the Whale”), a liberal arts grad who has never worked a day in his life, finds himself resorting to the game booths at the local run-down amusement park in order to pay for graduate school. Despite being recently dumped, he manages to strike up a romance with a cute co-worker (Kristen Stewart, “Twilight”), even as she screws the park’s slick-haired, bass-playing married mechanic (Ryan Reynolds, “Van Wilder”). Without any goofy subplot about the goings-on of the park, the careless summer flirtations between these people become the driving force of the film, for better or worse.

There are some colorful background characters just begging to break out of the shadows and steal the show, most notably Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig of “Saturday Night Live” fame, who play a husband-and-wife management duo. They have some funny bits, but those are outnumbered by many completely wasted comic opportunities, like a scene involving the two of them and some pot cookies. And the most memorable kid, a jerk named Frigo (Matt Bush, “One Last Thing…”) who takes great pride in his cock-punches, isn’t given nearly enough screen time to ascend to McLovin-like status.

Eisenberg, a poor man’s Michael Cera, tries playing James as endearingly awkward but is never able to find the right note to make the audience care about his predicament. His fellow actors similarly fail to connect, perhaps because every line of dialogue that comes out of anyone’s mouth is dripping with bored sarcasm and detachment. Obviously they all deserve better than this job, but surely college students must care about something in life — even during the summer.

“Adventureland” seems to be a more personal project for Mottola, and making the characters college grads instead of high school grads helps to elevate the film above the usual summer-lasting-forever teen movie. There’s an added layer of sadness in their lives that comes from their simple effort to make the best out of the dead-end predicament they find themselves in.

But when the characters only show fleeting glimpses of happiness or excitement, the audience is going to return the favor. Like the hats on the rotating dummies in the park’s rigged throw-a-ball-to-knock-off-the-hats game, the true potential of “Adventureland” remains firmly glued upon its own head, and no one succeeds in knocking it off.

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