Adventureland (2009)

This post does not have spoilers because I honestly enjoyed this movie and think it’s worth watching

Not to sound someone who posts instagrams of typewriters with ashtrays artfully placed next to them, but I think the best time to travel might be right after you graduate. This isn’t because you somehow became cultured in the four years you spent in college and it’s certainly not because, as a college graduate, you’re officially an adult who travels with an air of sophistication and maybe a pashmina or two. I just think it’s fun to travel right after graduation because the responsibilities of the “real world” haven’t quite hit you yet. You’re still riding a high off living in a glorified community of young people where your main job was to learn everything you can in four years. You haven’t realized that you’re not just a plucky college student anymore – you’re a full grown, real adult. When you travel right after graduation, especially if you don’t have a job yet, it feels like everywhere you go could be your future one day. For example, if you go to Moab, Utah (which I did so I guess this is really just me journaling at this point), you start to imagining a world where you get a job in Moab, buy a jeep, and somehow became really good at mountain biking. In this fantasy world, you exclusively wear Life Is Good and one day you catch a glimpse of that logo in the mirror and realize that life truly is good! (Okay, let’s move on from that brief glimpse into my rich fantasy life.) Essentially, on post grad adventures you start to realize just how huge the world is and all the opportunities in it. Somehow that makes the uncertainties of whatever path you’ve chosen to take seem thrilling rather than anxiety inducing. You start to get the hype about life!

Adventureland begins with that same idealistic energy. Our protagonist is James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) but his friends call him Brennan, so I guess I’ll go ahead and adopt that intimacy throughout the rest of this post. Brennan just graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio. He’s been dumped by his girlfriend, is anxious about losing his virginity, and is moving out of his college dorm. Despite all of this, the future really isn’t that bleak. He has plans to spend a summer backpacking through Europe before heading to Columbia University to study Journalism. How worldly! However, these idealistic plans are almost immediately dashed when his parents inform him that their cash flow isn’t what it used to be and they can’t afford to send him off to Europe for the summer. Brennan is understandably bummed about it, but he does display some irritating silver spoon behavior upon hearing the news. While applying for jobs, he seems amazed that he, a college graduate, can’t even find a summer job in “manual labor” which is a truly eye roll worthy complaint. Well, yeah, sorry that your Comparative Lit classes aren’t adequate training in operating a forklift, but people who work in manual labor do need experience or qualifications, Brennan. It’s clear to both Brennan and me that he needs to get some work experience in the service industry, though for different reasons. Brennan just wants money to afford grad school, whereas I just want him to be humbled a little bit and there’s no better way to do that than working customer service. I’ll rant more on that in a little bit.

Anyway, Brennan finally finds a job at Adventureland, a seasonal theme park managed by Bobby and Paulette (perfect duo Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig). Adventureland has cliques – the people who run the games (lame) and people who run the rides (cool). Of course, Brennan is assigned games, and instead of being surrounded by the popular preppy workers he gets Joel (Martin Starr, who has literally never been bad in anything). Joel is a recent graduate who studied Russian Literature and has no strong ambitions or hopes for his life. He becomes Brennan’s main confidant and best friend at the park. More importantly to Brennan, however, is Em, a quiet and unpretentious girl who Brennan is immediately attracted to after she diffuses a situation with a disgruntled knife pulling customer. Unfortunately for Brennan, Em is secretly sleeping with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a married man who really has no backstory except for a rumor that he once “jammed” with Lou Reed.

These friendships and clique dynamics are the best and worst parts of Adventureland. I love that this theme park is filled with so many slightly unhinged but still very grounded characters and watching them interact with each other is consistently interesting. It’s sweet to watch Em stick up for Joel when he gets rejected by a girl, it’s entertaining to watch the workers teach Brennan about the spoken and unspoken rules of Adventureland (no one ever wins a giant panda), and Bobby and Paulette are so bizarre that the fact they found each other is kind of heartwarming. Adventureland really captures crappy summer jobs perfectly – it’s a stream of dealing with awfulness that’s broken up in the interactions you have with coworkers who are completely in the trenches with you. Some summer jobs are all about finding the bits of glory in all the garbage, and there’s no better illustration of that than watching Brennan, Joel, and Em get high and run around a dizzy neon amusement park

The only real blind spots in Adventureland are the female friendships, or lack thereof. While I like Em as a character, she is kind of a “cool girl” – she’s pretty without trying, she hangs out almost exclusively with guys, and her existential conversations with Brennan are juxtaposed with Brennan’s less serious conversations with the park’s resident pretty girl, Lisa P. The only close female friendship in the movie is between Lisa P. and her wordless counterpart Kelly, characters that are otherwise mostly portrayed as vapid girls who pack on lip gloss and do dance breaks in the middle of the park for the customers’ entertainment. This doesn’t really hurt the movie, but it just makes the movie more familiar in a bad way. Everyone has seen girls pitted against each other in movies – it would just be more interesting if Em and Lisa P. got along or weren’t so obviously juxtaposed. If Claire and Allison in The Breakfast Club can find some common ground over the course of one day, I don’t see why Em and Lisa P. couldn’t have just smoked a bowl and swapped neon jelly bracelets at least once over an entire summer!

Despite this, Adventureland is still a great blend of nostalgia and existential anxieties all contained in a rickety little theme park. There’s something poetic about Brennan spending what is essentially his last summer before entering the real world at an amusement park. This job would probably seem like a dream to a little kid, but Brennan is now twenty two and, for the most part, can’t appreciate whatever whimsy there is in working at Adventureland. Instead, spending his days at the park is more of a daily reminder of all that Brennan still needs to accomplish, of all the work he needs to do in order to achieve his dreams. Despite his neuroses and disappointment with his post-grad summer, it seems that working at Adventureland ultimately gives Brennan the same experiences and epiphanies that you stumble on when travelling around the world. Brennan still has a summer of meeting interesting people, gaining more confidence in himself, and, most importantly, learning that the only way to make yourself happy is by being proactive and doing things that lead you to where you want to be. Yes, it’s way more fun to do a Euro trip, to be like Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love, finding your purpose in the winding roads of Italy with just a soft smile and a glass of red as your only travel partners. But, as Brennan and Adventureland proves, you can find yourself in the last places you want to be, too.

Final thoughts:

  • There’s a scene where Brennan complains about the repetitive park playlist and Joel joins in by yelling “Fucking sadists. Fucking sadists!” This exchange lasts roughly five seconds but was the funniest part of the movie for me. If you ever go into a restaurant or a store and see the employees nodding their heads to the music, it probably isn’t because they actually like the song. It’s really more likely just some Stockholm Syndrome-esque tick from having been forced to listen to it so many times their brain is more familiar with the nuances of the song than the names and backstories of close loved ones.
  • I love the choice to name a character ‘Lisa P.’ rather than just Lisa. It feels so middle school and gives the sense that the Lisa P. is a real legend around Adventureland. She’s not just any random Lisa – she’s Lisa P.

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