The summer of 1987 was the time it all went wrong for teenager James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg). He thought he had somethng special going on between him and his girlfriend of eleven days, but she broke up with him; then the trip to Europe he planned with his friends before they all went off to college ended with them going without him because he could not afford it thanks to his father (Jack Gilpin) losing his job. As if that were not bad enough, now it looked as if his place at a New York university might be in jeopardy if he could not make the requisite amount of funds. There was only one thing to do: get a job at Adventureland...
By the end of this you're supposed to come to the conclusion that hey, maybe this crazy big old thing we call life is an Adventureland in itself, and as it transpired quite a few people fell under its unassuming spell. It was based by writer and director Greg Mottola on his own experiences working at the park of the title, here set in Pittsburgh, and there was a lot to respond to in its combination of light character comedy and more serious sympathy with the characters when things did not go so well for them. It was certainly a better film than Mottola's previous effort, the hit Superbad, but did not do as much business or have as much cultural impact.
Those who did appreciate it, however, recognised a nicely observed coming of age story and were prepared to overlook how slick it was in hitting its emotional targets, as if every character had their trajectories through the plot all-too-carefully mapped out beforehand, leaving a sense of spontaneity lacking. But there was a solid cast here to flesh out what could have been far too polished versions of the kind of person you could see in any number of American indie movies of the day. Eisenberg had already by this time found his feet as the nerdy but perceptive type in a few movies, and in this same year had offered a variation on that with the similarly titled Zombieland; this did show off his stylings to a slightly better advantage.
When James gets his last resort post at the funfair, he sets about it with dutiful low spirits, but after a while he starts to make friends and what with him being a hopeless romantic and all, things stir in his heart when confronted with the gloomy countenance of Em (Kristen Stewart). What he does not know is that the park handyman, Connell (Ryan Reynolds), is conducting an affair with her even though he is married, a poorly concealed secret that nonetheless nobody tells James about. At first he's not sure whether she really likes him, and in truth it's difficult for us to tell as well but this feeds into the awkward "does she fancy me?" stage of the relationship that many will appreciate. As it turns out, she does like him, pretentious though he is.
Though this is more a drama with laughs, it's true to say the most comedy occurs in that first two thirds as Mottola juggles the plot threads and gradually reveals to us how everyone feels about one another. We can notice, for example, that James's new miserabilist pal Joel (Martin Starr) is just as lovelorn, but his attraction to Em is doomed to failure, and that maybe James is more of a catch than he would realise when the park's resident beauty queen, Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) asks him out on a date. It's the romance between him and Em that detains us here, and as the story draws on and the mood darkens, you might regret the opportunity to make this more escapist that Mottola passes by. It does resolve itself into a happy ending, though that bittersweet nature doesn't quite leave it, yet does come across as a little too pat and not as messy as the real life situations that it might have otherwise aspired to emulate. Music by Yo La Tengo.