I watched Adventureland the other night, a 2009 film directed by Greg Mottola. The setting is undeniably 1980s, but it’s not the over-the-top ’80s back-splash you might expect. In other words, it’s not a scene out of an ’80s party you go to in a college dorm room, where girls are wearing Flashdance t-shirts and neon spandex and the guys are in popped collared polos. It’s deeper than that. It’s grimier. Grimy ’80s. Lou Reed. David Bowie. Worn out t-shirts. Corn dogs.
It’s the summer of 1987 and James (Jessie Eisenberg) needs a summer job to pay his way to New York, so he starts working as a “Games Guy” at the local amusement park called Adventureland. He’s hired by a pair of managers in acid wash jean shorts, whom may or may not be a couple, but have a strange power-struggle relationship, and the guy manager, Bobby, has a mustache that could be its own character. The games at the park are all rigged — Fedora hats are glued to the heads of mannequins, the basketball hoops are oval shaped….you might leave the park feeling like a winner, but you’ll never score a giant ass Panda bear.
James meets Joel (Martin Starr), a boy with greasy black hair and glasses, Frigo, a kid who makes his own t-shirts, and Em (Kristen Stewart), whom is secretly involved with “Connell” (Ryan Reynolds), a shady older guy who carouses the park with his guitar and woos girls over with his questionable rock musician stories. He’s married to a girl who works at “Razz-Ma-Tazz”, a dance club in town. Em has really had it with Connell’s ways, but you can tell she’s guarded against guys and likes to play by her own rules. Her dad is oblivious to her, and her step mom wears a wig, a fabulous shaggy feathered number that reminds me of Lee Purcell’s character, Beth, in Valley Girl. A few days into the summer, Lisa P. arrives at Adventureland, a girl who operates the rides, and dances around in her high waisted skinny jeans to “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco.
James hates that song. But he’s less interested in the likes of Lisa P. and more into Em. She has that mysterious appeal that makes him wanting more. He also has a huge stash of pot his friend left him for the summer, and she’s willing to make pot cookies. They hit it off great, but Em doesn’t want anything serious – and tells James to cool it a little. He doesn’t know about her and Connell. As the story unravels, so do all of the secrets, and inevitably, this leads James to take Lisa P. out on a fancy date to “The Velvet Touch,” a nice restaurant in town. Lisa P. always chews gum, which is reminiscent of one of the counselor characters from one of my favorite films, Wet Hot American Summer. She isn’t completely dense, even though she has enough Aqua Net in her hair to kill the ozone. But, when James tells her that Em and Connell are sneaking around — Lisa P. tells everyone. Em quits. Connell’s wife divorces him. The summer ends. James crashes his car, but takes a bus to New York anyway, desperate for Em’s forgiveness. What do you think happens?
But this movie is obviously not on my list of favorites for its predictable plot. Coming of age, summer romance/friendship films always end the same way. You feel relieved and sad all at once. What drives this movie are the aesthetics: the oversized walkee talkees, one guy Pete’s morning invite to take Lisa P. to a Judas Priest concert, the kid with the drum sticks who sings a Rush song to Em but forgets the lyrics, payphones and landlines, beater cars, and Joel’s little brother in tube socks mowing the backyard.
The guy who misspells Satan and writes “Satin Lives” in spray paint on the wall of the park, is just as important as Sue, the girl who tells Joel she can’t go out with him because he’s Jewish, or when Lisa P. confides in James about her broken home life. Maybe when Em says, “I don’t want to lose you,” we sigh and know for sure that we’ve said that once or twice to someone. And maybe we know for a fact that Connell and guys like Connell will always be hanging around the park to retell the same Lou Reed stories to young girls. This movie isn’t trying to dress anything up and wrap it in a box. It’s just the blink of an eye, a summer in your life, when you were standing outside with friends, just trying to figure out what to do and where to go.