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Adventureland is more melancholy than its wacky trailers let on

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the fall movie season upon us, we wave goodbye to the warmer months with some of our favorite films about the end of summer.

Adventureland (2009)

The skyline of an amusement park is such a perfect, freestanding, steel-girders metaphor for the ups-and-downs of adolescence that it’s a wonder that no filmmaker really got there before Greg Mottola. Though marketed as a ribald teen farce along the lines of his previous hit Superbad, Adventureland is actually a tender little dramedy about the dead zone between university and adulthood. Its hero is a wannabe writer whose big-city ambitions bump up against the drab reality of suburban Pittsburgh, where he’s trapped for what he had been hoping would be the most exciting summer of his life.


Forced by his parents to earn his own going-away money by taking a job at the local fairground, James (Jesse Eisenberg) fairly resonates with resentment, but Mottola and his cinematographer Terry Stacey do a fine job of making Adventureland seem gradually enchanted the longer he works there; the dog days bleed into neon nights. The slapsticky interludes with the park managers (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) are amusing enough, but James’ tentative romance with his new carny colleague Em (Kristen Stewart) is genuinely lovely, never more so then when they’re bombing around stoned in bumper cars to the sounds of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” (merely the most beautiful selection on one of the best curated period-rock soundtracks in recent memory).

As coming-of-age fables go, Adventureland is relatively understated—the biggest catastrophe involves a non-fatal car accident—and yet it tingles with feeling. Its vision of the midway as a teenage wasteland is satirical without being snarky, and it gently chides James’ literary pretensions without turning him into a total goober (an ambivalence borne out in Eisenberg’s performance, which anticipates his darker turns in a similar vein in The Social Network and Night Moves). It also features a wonderful supporting turn from Ryan Reynolds as a married mechanic whose underlying melancholy is achingly present in every wide, forced smile. That bitter chill is the flipside to the endless summer represented by Adventureland itself—the roller coasters running in a thrilling, grueling loop-de-loop.


Availability: Adventureland is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.