Adventureland (2009) a (mildly) belated review

Another post from the past, this one originally appeared on March 16, 2011.  It has been cleaned up a little for clarity.

Has there ever been a movie that you’ve simultaneously loved -and disliked- at the same time?  A film that hits so many good notes, yet stumbles so badly in other ways that in the end, despite so much good, you feel it is difficult to recommend it?

I recall when M. Night Shyamalan released Unbreakable, his follow up to the incredibly successful Sixth Sense, back in 2000.  The film was presented as something of a mystery: David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a man who questions exactly who/what he is after a devastating train accident leaves him the sole survivor.  In the end, it turns out (SPOILERS!) that he has the powers of a superhero…and must eventually confront his very own super-villain.  While the film was, for the most part, enjoyable, there was a scene in it that just irritated the hell out of me to such an extent that, even today, I can’t help but think of it whenever I think of the film itself.

The sequence in question involved our protagonist and his son in their home’s garage.  Dunn has begun to realize he is different from other people, and he and his son are checking out just how different he really is by seeing how much weight he can bench press.  Dunn, who previously was a star on the high school football team, states that while he lifted weights back then, he never pushed himself to see just how much he could lift.  He does this now, and finds he can seemingly effortlessly lift a considerable, even supernatural amount.  This further provides evidence that he is indeed not a typical human being.

Unfortunately, this scene made absolutely no sense and, worse, revealed the director/writer’s ignorance of High School jocks.

You see, it was my experience while in High School and, afterwards, college, that people who actively engaged in sports -surprise surprise!- tended to be very invested in their physical training.  They kept track of how many situps, pull ups, or miles they ran each day.  And they most certainly knew (and took pride!) in how much they could lift in the weight room.  It was not unusual for me to overhear their conversations, wherein they noted how much they lifted that day, how often, and for how long.  They took pride in striving to incrementally do a little more, and then a little more than that, for it is in this progress they gauge their physical improvement.

For David Dunn, an alleged football star in High School, to profess in that movie scene that he never knew how much he could lift was simply ridiculous.  If he made any effort at all during his football playing years, then he damn well would have kept some track of his physical prowess.  This would be a source of pride, not something that he would shrug off. Further, in exploring just how strong he was while in High School, Dunn would/should have come to the realization that he was a super being much, much earlier in his life.  Just like that, the entire movie’s premise -that he was blissfully unaware of what he was after all these years-simply fell apart for me.

In Adventureland we have a sweet coming of age dramedy that struck a deep cord within me.  No, I never worked at a dodgy amusement park following High School/College to make some money, but the movie took place in a time and featured a cast of characters I could easily identify with.  The movie is set in the mid-1980’s and features a cast of characters who are roughly the same age as I was in that same period of time.  Like the protagonist, I too was finding my way in the world and, over the course of doing so, met and made friends with people very similar to the various characters, both male and female, presented in the movie.  I knew the womanizers, I knew the clueless adults and youths, I knew the potheads, I knew the parties.  And, yes, in my youth I also fell for that out of reach “edgy” girl.  In fact, I made a habit of it.  As someone who often loves reflecting on those sweet  feelings of my youth, the movie proved a pleasant nostalgic kick.

Jesse Eisenberg is James Brennan, our protagonist, a nerdy, intelligent guy who comes from a poor family and is looking to leave his roots and head to New York.  He’s just finished high school and is expecting his parents to help pay for a trip he intends to make with his best friend to Europe.  He’s planned out his post-Europe life:  He will go to New York to complete his studies and from there become the adult he wants to be.

All those youthful plans are dashed when he discovers his parents aren’t doing so well financially and thus cannot pay their share of the trip.  He is forced to abandon Europe and take a job at a somewhat sleazy carnival/park called Adventureland.  It is there he meets Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart, who absolutely nails her role).  When they first meet, she seems instantly interested in James.


There is no real reason.  She simply is.  As the movie progresses, we find she has a messy home and personal life.  She is involved with the park’s resident handsome lothario, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds in a relatively small role).  Mike is married, but he’s an alley cat who carries on with whatever female he can charm into his bed.  In any other film, he might be presented as the movie’s villain but here he is humanized and shown to be yet another person with faults.  Indeed, everyone in the film is presented this way…no one is a pristine heroes of a terrible villain.  The people in and around the park go about their young lives as best they can, stumbling at times, being let down at others, all while working their way through this summer.

As stated before, I found myself really into the story and even more so into the characters presented because I could sympathize with that epoch.  The film really had me, especially regarding the growing love James had for the (somewhat) troubled Em.  As the movie progressed, I was expecting it to go bold and give us an ending that was honest and true to life…in as much as a film can be.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to go into a direction that, unfortunately, wound up souring the experience.


Setting the film in the past already had me as a viewer on alert.  As with other films set in the past that wax nostalgic, like the equally sweet but overall better American Graffiti or the more bawdy Animal House, I figured we were headed into a bittersweet “where are they now” type ending.

Young love -at least in my experience- is often filled with hormone infused frustration.  Therefore, I was certain the relationship between James and Em was never destined to be.  Indeed, when James loses Em and hears she has moved to New York toward the end of the film, he says of his relationship with her: “I wish it hadn’t ended that way”, and I thought that would be it, and that the movie would then shift to the present, wherein we would find an older, wiser James standing before the now crumbling Adventureland park and remembering that one youthful love he had…and lost.

“Where is she now?” he would wonder in my imaginary ending.  His youthful looks are marred a bit by the passage of the years, his hair is a little gray.  He looks on at this place where the last moments of his childhood played out and walks away.  Despite the sadness of losing Em, there is a smile on his face, for he still has those pleasant memories.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to opt for a more standard “happy ending.”  Unfortunately, their idea of a happy ending is to have our protagonist travel to New York in search of Em.  Like a stalker, he eventually finds her, and, despite the implied passage of time (it is hinted many months have passed since they last saw each other), they instantly, indeed too quickly, rekindle their puppy love and decide that now they can go all the way.

Yes, the movie’s happy ending is that James finally gets to sleep with Em.

As with the problem I had with Unbreakable, Adventureland’s conclusion might not put off other viewers and may be something that bothered me and no one else.

Still, the ending rang hollow and ruined what until then was a beautiful slice of life feeling.  I suppose saying I “hated” the movie is too strong a word.  Yet despite all the good stuff, despite the fact that this film had me waxing nostalgic with memories both good and bad of my youth throughout its run, that ending proved a real turn off.  Too bad.