Reviews of the latest films.
April 7 2009 5:56 PM

Back in the Summer of '87

Greg Mottola's wonderful Adventureland.

Adventureland. Click image to expand.
Jesse Eisenberg and Martin Starr in Adventureland

Adventureland (Miramax Films), Greg Mottola's tale of coming of age in Pittsburgh in 1987, has the note-perfect melancholy of a classic young adult novel. Like many books of that genre, the film takes place over one very special, and often very shitty, summer. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a brainy and high-strung kid fresh out of college, has been counting on touring Europe before starting grad school in the fall. But when his secretly alcoholic father (Jack Gilpin, wonderful in a nearly wordless part) gets demoted at work, James has to contribute to the family income by taking a job at Adventureland, a seriously downscale amusement park.

To his humiliation, James is soon handing out lame prizes (a stuffed banana with googly eyes?) and mopping up children's barf at a game booth. His fellow reluctant carnies include Joel (Martin Starr), a pipe-smoking, Gogol-reading misfit, and Em (Kristen Stewart), the slinkster-cool tough girl of every indie boy's dreams. Em offers James rides home from work, Lou Reed and Big Star blasting from the car stereo, and confides in him about her miserable family. But she's secretly involved with Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), Adventureland's mechanic and chief Lothario, who's both much older and a married man. Frustrated by Em's reluctance to go beyond friendship, James takes up with the park slut, Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), only to discover that beneath her hoop-earringed, gum-snapping exterior lurks a Catholic prude.


All this sounds like a retread of raunchy, deliberately outrageous teen sex comedies— American Pie, say, or Mottola's last film, Superbad. Instead, Adventureland harks back to the introspective teen rom-coms of the 1980s, with Jesse Eisenberg in the John Cusack role. The gangly Eisenberg, with his soulful gaze and unruly mop of curls, is adorable enough to spread on toast, as anyone who saw him in The Squid and the Whale can attest. And the amount of screen time devoted to James' emotional, as opposed to hormonal, fluctuations makes Adventureland as likely to appeal to girls as boys. Kristen Stewart, who gets more ethereally lovely with each screen appearance, plays a darker and richer variant of the disaffected schoolgirl she played in Twilight. And Ryan Reynolds, an actor I've never really gotten the point of before, invests his potentially unappealing character—a would-be musician with a weakness for jailbait—with unexpected layers of pathos and humor.

The film doesn't go to archival extremes in its period correctness (it's not, like last year's The Wackness, a nostalgic museum piece), but the details feel just right: The cool girl wears army fatigues and drives a dented hatchback. As the meek wife of Adventureland's cheapskate manager (Bill Hader), Kristen Wiig wears sublimely awful blue jeans, high-waisted and acid-washed. The tacky disco the kids frequent is called Razzmatazz, and the nice restaurant reserved for special dates is called (this one kills me) The Velvet Touch. The soundtrack captures the way pop music can function as the backdrop of a love affair: It includes a few classic '80s touchstones (the Cure's "Just Like Heaven," the Replacements' "Unsatisfied") but also unearths worthy smaller hits like Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over."

Perhaps the outsized affection I feel for this modest little movie is partly generational: I'm only two years younger than Greg Mottola, and in the summer of 1988, one year after the film takes place, I was a college grad with a degree even more useless than James' and a crap job at a bakery. But surely you don't have to have lived through the summer of Iran-Contra and Robocop in order to remember (or look forward to) how the worst summer job ever can turn into the ride of your life.

Slate V: The critics on Adventureland and other new movies

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.