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No Adventure in “Adventureland”

April 6, 2009
Two hours of pot and corndogs.

Two hours of pot, corndogs, and unbelievably awkward flirtation which eventually culminates in some nudity and implied sex.

Allow me to spare you two hours and eight bucks by summing up Adventureland in two words: awkward and boring. Was it the worst movie I’ve ever seen?  No, that distinction still belongs to Magnolia, but Adventureland definitely crossed into clock-watching territory.  I must have checked my watch three times, and the movie just kept going, like it was damn well determined to finish what it started no matter how long it took. What made the experience more painful was that it got such great reviews. Is it me? Did I just not get the greater allegorical message about being twenty-something and aimless? (Uh, hello?) Or did I miss the beautiful young love story that was just so honest? You be the judge:

[SPOILERS]

No doubt some of my dislike of the movie stems from my incredible aversion to the wooden leading lady, but that doesn’t justify the incredible dullness of the story. The film begins in 1987 (a year which has no significance beyond the excuse to showcase neon scrunchies and pink leopardprint hot pants) at your typical house party crushed with people and booze, where our hero James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is dumped by the girl he’d been dating for a week.  After some consoling from his “friends,” with whom he’s planning to bum around Europe, James admits that he somehow managed to graduate college with his V-card.  He says it’s ’cause he’s sensitive and waiting for the right girl, and miraculously, his friends don’t spend the next twenty minutes hassling him about it.

Then the unthinkable happens: over a celebratory post-grad brunch, James’s bourgeois parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) inform him that thanks to the economy, his dad got demoted and they’re now poor, so they can’t send him to Europe, even though he’s offered to sleep in hostels and risk dismemberment. Worse, they can’t afford to send him to Columbia for grad school, and he has to get a summer job if he still plans to move to New York in the fall. Apparently life immediately after college sucked as much in the 80s as it does now.

His parents pack him up (where he was living up until this point is not really clear, though it was probably someplace pretentious) and drag him home to Pennsylvania, though not before his ‘friend’ gives him a bag of joints which are integral to the plot. Upon arrival at the homestead, James is promptly punched in the groin by an old childhood friend named Frigo (Matt Bush). After finding himself unqualified to wait tables or drive a cement truck thanks to his lousy comparative literature degree (I feel you, man), the budding Jack Kerouac gives in and applies for a job at the same crappy carnival where his groin-punching buddy works.

James is hoping for a pink t-shirt that says “Rides Rides Rides,” but is forced to settle for the blue “Games Games Games” shirt instead, and after meeting the park managers of questionable sanity (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), he’s given a tour of the numerous ways Adventureland cheats its customers by Joel (Martin Starr) who smokes a pipe. This leads to his first meeting with NYU-student Em (Bella Swan Kristen Stewart), she of the two modes: angsty and angry. They are IMMEDIATELY ATTRACTED to one another. (That’s how I imagine it was typed in the script.)  She also wants his pot, as apparently her supplier dried up.

His first or second day on the job, James loses a Giant Ass Panda he’s never supposed to lose at knifepoint, and is sort of rescued by Em.  After a couple more staring-and talking-but-not-actually-conversing interactions, Em invites James to her house for a party – her dad won’t be home.  It’s at this point we completely forget these characters are actually old enough to drink because they seem like high schoolers.  Em also invites Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the ridiculously good-looking maintenance man-slash-musician who supposedly played with Lou Reed.  He turns her down – careful, girls, he’s married.

Okay, my summary’s getting almost as long as the movie – let’s pick things up. James goes to Em’s house, breaks out the pot, everyone gets baked and drinks, there’s more awkward flirting with sentence fragments, then Em dives into the swimming pool in a t-shirt and her underwear.  James dives in after stripping down to his tighty-whities, and they swim in two feet of water for a bit until he makes a move and she runs off to get more alcohol.

Once inside with a towel around his waist, Em tells him about her messed up family – her mom’s dead and her bald stepmother is evil. Also, Em’s Jewish. Frigo ruins whatever moment there was by pissing on the outside window. What a gem.  Party’s over, James goes home to pine, and Em’s phone rings while she’s cleaning up.  She gets a visitor, and his name is Connell.  They have sex.

Of course the next day James goes to the much older and cooler Connell for advice on wooing Em. Oops! This is all complicated by the arrival of what the guys consider to be sex-on-legs, Lisa P (Margarita Levieva). This is pretty much where I started checking my watch, so my memory of the plot gets a little fuzzy. At some point the Adventureland crew go to the Razzmatazz Disco after work, to drink, and drink some more.  I’m pretty sure the only person who doesn’t drink in this movie is Wendie Malick.  The Razzmatazz happens to be where Connell’s wife works as a waitress – oops!  Meanwhile Lisa P and her gal pal grind on the dance floor (I’m pretty sure I caught her doing the Macarena, which wouldn’t be invented for about five years), and Joel gets drunk and starts making out with one of the other carnies.  There’s more awkward giggling between James and Em, before he forces her to dance.

Sometime before or after the Razzmatazz, James and Em end up in the same bar that Em regularly meets Connell at.  Neither of them get carded which is weird since they can both pass for sixteen – and, in fact, Kristen Stewart is only nineteen. But no big! James tells Em that he’s still a virgin and remarkably she doesn’t give him grief about it.  In fact, she seems uncomfortable with her own promiscuity, imagine that. Then Connell and his wife show up, so it’s awkward.

When James comes on strong and Em tells him she needs to take things slow, Connell convinces James to go for it with Lisa P, to have his ‘needs met’ even though she’s Catholic and won’t actually have sex with him.  Lisa P proves that she’s really dumb, but not a really terrible person, so James shares his weed with her, and makes out with her in his car.  Connell takes Em to his mother’s basement to have sex, which pretty much ends any hope I had for Ryan Reynolds’ character not being an utter creep.

Groin-punching Frigo, who disappeared for a chunk of the movie, returns to tell James that his one true love has been banging Connell.  James, remembering what Lisa P told him about Connell’s love nest, asks Frigo to drive him to Connell’s mother’s house. There he confronts Em, and runs away to Lisa P.  He tells her about Em’s sleeping arrangement, and she tells the entire park.  Em quits, goes home and basically calls her stepmother a bitch, then runs back to New York.

James actually apologizes to Connell for outing him and Em, ’cause that’s part of the Bro Code, probably, and gets incredibly drunk, crashing his father’s car into a tree – not necessarily in that order. His mother insists he pay for the damages with his carney money, which devastates him since that’ll leave nothing for Columbia.  Worse, he gets a call from his “friend” who’s sold out and is going to business school in another state, meaning they can’t room together.

I forget if there was an actual epiphany scene or not.  All I remember is that the movie ends (finally) with James getting on a bus to New York, abandoning grad school to write about prisons like Charles Dickens, hunting down Em, and getting naked in her apartment.  Kiss that V-card goodbye! Also, before he leaves Pennsylvania, he decks Frigo in the crotch, so you see, he’s come full-circle.

Did I mention the drinking and the pot?

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