Maybe François Truffaut invented the genre 50 years ago with The 400 Blows, or Fellini back in 1953 with I vitelloni. I'm referring to that memoiristic, cinematic bildungsroman you could call the "Portrait of the Auteur As a Young Man" genre. Coming and going over the years, it's picked up steam and some hard and fast rules of late with the likes of Almost Famous, Rushmore, The Wackness, and now, from Superbad's Greg Mottola, Adventureland.
VIDEO: The trailer for Adventureland
This is the same autobiographical tendency that marked early films from such greats as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and even George Lucas. Could its revival signal a new era of auteurship in Hollywood? Maybe, but Mottola, for one, hasn't quite reached that point. Although funny and sometimes poignant (especially for those who were of a certain age in the late '80s, when the film is set), Adventureland never rises above the formula.
The conventions are familiar enough. There's the virginal young protagonist who's smart, sensitive, and erudite — which of course makes him an outsider. In the case of Adventureland, that would be James (Jesse Eisenberg, who's got a lock on this role with his turns in Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale, and the upcoming The Education of Charlie Banks).
James, like his counterparts in these films, is facing a turning point in his life. He's just graduated from college when, in short order, his life falls apart. His girlfriend dumps him. And his planned summer in Europe evaporates. Dad, it turns out, has been demoted (it's 1987, just before the stock-market crash that would be Black Monday, and the film wants to introduce the genre's unreliable-father motif), so James has to find a summer job to pay for grad school. After a desperate search in convenience stores and the like (his attempt to promote himself to potential employers by citing his work for the school literary magazine is a nice touch), he ends up as a barker for the sideshow games at the local amusement park of the title.
Adventureland turns out to be one of Mottola's more original creations, a down-at-the-heels establishment that epitomizes everything that's sad and tacky about that period in American culture. It also offers some of the film's best characters, like Joel (Martin Starr), a defeated Slavic Literature major who affects a pipe and gets his ass kicked by a sore loser at the "Hats Off to Larry" game.
The park is also where James meets the requisite cool and beautiful but seemingly inaccessible love object, Em (pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart), who shares his taste in music (hence the quirky period soundtrack common to these films). Thing is, she's attracted to Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the older married guy who goes after younger chicks (a stock figure in most of these movies since at least Dazed and Confused). Mike serves, no surprise, as James's flawed role model and Oedipal father substitute.
But naive romantic that he is, James idealizes Em. And so does Mottola. The director's attempts to account for her erratic behavior are contrived, and Stewart can't flesh out the stereotype. More compelling, though, than the predictable outcome of their relationship and James's rote coming of age is Adventureland's ability to conjure the spirit of a time, place, and state of mind that were alive and vivid once and have since passed away.