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Sometimes summer plans don't go as planned.
Take James Brennan's case. Instead of traipsing around Europe with his best bud after college, the bookish twentysomething finds himself trapped in Pittsburgh. The reason? His white-collar father's job demotion. Also in jeopardy is James' intention to attend Columbia University grad school in the fall.
And so Mom and Dad deliver an unexpected message to their coddled son: Get a job. But in the spring of 1987, even summer jobs are hard to come by.
Enter Adventureland, a rinky-dink amusement park ready to put anyone to work—including a former contemporary lit and Renaissance studies major like James. His assignment manning rigged games is no renaissance, though. It's more like a sentence.
He does make a few friends at least. There's Joel, a bespectacled philosophical type with a penchant for Russian novelists. And Connell, a cool maintenance man who moonlights as a musician.
And then there's Em. Moody and mysterious, distant and damaged, Em doesn't seem the type who would be drawn to good-natured James. But she is.
Like castaways on a desert island, these young adults work to make the most of their summer, enduring the days, drinking and getting stoned at night. But even as something like love begins to blossom between James and Em, a dark secret threatens to unravel their unlikely connection.
Adventureland subtly illustrates the importance of parental influence. Early on, we learn that Connell, who's married, regularly has affairs with much younger park employees. His current object of attention: Em. That's obviously not positive. But the film suggests that Connell's womanizing is, in part, due to the fact that his father abandoned his family. Likewise, Em is trying to come to terms with her mother's recent death and her father's subsequent remarriage to a vacuous woman who treats Em like unwanted baggage.
James' parents aren't perfect, but they love their son enough to discipline him when he drunkenly wrecks their car. Another character refuses to compromise her convictions because it would anger her parents. The overall message regarding parents, then, is that they matter.
As the summer concludes, Em ends her affair with Connell in tears. "I can't do this anymore," she tells him. Likewise, James has a brief relationship with a temptress named Lisa P, but he eventually cuts off that relationship and confesses fully to Em. For her part, Em believes she's got too much baggage to commit to a real relationship. But James believes otherwise and insists that he can accept her, even though he's fully aware of her checkered past.
The park's managers demonstrate kindness and loyalty to employees on several occasions.
While stoned, Lisa P asks if James believes in God. Her father's chronic health problems and ongoing suffering have prompted her, she says, to think about God. James responds nonchalantly: "Theology doesn't come up a lot around here." He tries to change the subject by saying, "I believe in love."
Em bitterly informs James that her Jewish father started going to temple again when her mom was dying of cancer. She said he was trying to "buddy up to God" in the hope that it would save her mom's life. Instead, he met a woman there whom he married shortly after Em's mom passed away. Thus, Em labels her stepmother an "unholy abomination."
A girl with whom Joel connects tells him that they can't have a relationship because he's Jewish and she's Catholic. She says her parents wouldn't approve. Joel retorts that even though he's ethnically Jewish, he would describe himself as an "agnostic nihilist." That argument fails to sway the Catholic girl. When Em hears why she's refused to see Joel again, she calls the Catholic girl an "anti-Semitic a--hole" who probably "hates gay people" and "supports Apartheid," too.
A park worker jokingly points out misspelled graffiti that says, "Satin Lives."
Much is made of virgins and Catholics. Connell says, suggestively, that Catholic girls are willing to experiment with other forms of sexual expression. And James' buddy tells him he needs to find some "lonely, insecure, depressive" college girl and "get it over with." James, who is still a virgin, doesn't want to do that, though. He says later that he's a romantic who just hasn't found someone he loves yet.
Em and Connell have an ongoing affair. We see them kiss and begin to remove clothes (she fumbles with his belt). Sex is always implied rather than shown. Em tries to rationalize the illicit relationship she has with Connell by concentrating on the fact that he's trapped in a loveless marriage.
James and Em swim in their underwear at a party. (She leaves a shirt on.) And they begin to consummate their relationship in the film's finale. We see her bare back and side (and his) as they start stripping off clothes.
Crude comments are made about women's bodies and a man's erection. There are visual and verbal references to masturbation. Make-out scenes involve touching and, when interrupted, quick cover-ups. Lisa P dances suggestively several times.
It's generally agreed that "guys can't help themselves" when it comes to sex.
James catches some guys cheating at a game, and they pull a knife on him. Other patrons who are angry about games being rigged hit Joel and threaten Em. James smacks one of them, then gets chased by another. The park manager scares the guy off with threatening language and a baseball bat. He also chases down and apparently hits (off camera) a kid who litters (which is played for laughs).
Frigo, an immature friend of James', repeatedly kicks James in the crotch. James returns the "favor" once. Frigo holds lit Roman candles in both hands. As he shoots fireballs over a deserted hillside, he pretends he's engaging the Viet Cong.
There's talk of someone using a pen to "violate" a cat.
Crude or Profane Language
More than 50 f-words. Several of them are paired with "mother." One is inserted into Jesus' name. We also hear about a dozen other misuses of Jesus' and God's names, including one pairing of the later with "d--n." There are 25 or so s-words and at least that many other vulgarities. Name-calling includes a half-dozen instances of "p---y," "f-ggot" and "douche."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alcohol and marijuana are omnipresent. Characters drink all manner of alcohol (beer, shots, mixed drinks, rum, champagne, wine) at college, at homes, at bars, in cars—virtually everywhere. Several people get very drunk. One girl falls down in a parking lot. James accidentally rams a tree while driving under the influence. His father drinks as well, and James finds a bottle of hard liquor secreted away in Dad's car. Em and Connell always have a drink before sex. (It's implied that Em needs to numb herself with something to keep participating in the affair.)
More than half-a-dozen scenes picture or mention marijuana. Before leaving for Europe, James' friend gives him a bag of rolled marijuana joints. James doles them out at work throughout the summer. James, Connell and Lisa P repeatedly smoke joints (Connell while driving). Lisa P puts on lots of perfume to camouflage the odor when she goes home. James gives Em several joints to make "pot cookies." Several characters get stoned after she makes them, ride bumper cars, then ... go to work.
Frigo tells James that he's got access to his mom's cough syrup. Joel smokes a pipe.
Other Negative Elements
James unwisely tells Lisa P that Em has been having an affair with Connell, news that quickly spreads through the park. When he sees Em again, James lies to her about what he's been doing.
When James begins working games, the park manager tells him that no one wins a "giant-a--ed panda." There's a good reason: Most of the games are rigged, making it impossible to score the best prizes. A sarcastic comment denigrates "little Malaysian kids" who manufactured some of the games.
Ride-sickened children and inebriated adults vomit several times. The park manager decides to sell spoiled corn dogs that didn't get refrigerated in time. Frigo appears to urinate on the window of a restaurant.
Adventureland is an odd film. And it's not just the previous two sentences that make me say so.
Though it's been marketed as a teen sex comedy—"From the director of Superbad," trumpets one poster—the stars aren't teens, the focus isn't really on sex and the comedy frequently plays second fiddle to serious musings about loss and love.
To be sure, there's lots of sexual content here. But unlike the aforementioned Superbad, the pursuit of sex for its own sake is neither the film's nor the characters' main goal. Instead, the subject is sometimes treated with an unexpected degree of realism.
Em, for example, apparently relies on sex as a defense mechanism to keep from engaging in a real relationship with James or dealing with the loss of her mother. Likewise, James and some other characters forgo jumping into the sack at the first possible opportunity (though he does get there with Em eventually).
Much more than sex, the film glorifies getting drunk and smoking pot. There's barely a scene where someone isn't drinking or toking ... or getting ready to drink or toke ... or recovering from drinking or toking. If sex is something that some characters use to numb the pain of their dead-end lives, alcohol and marijuana are the painkillers of choice for virtually everyone.
And painkiller is the right word here.
So Adventureland is less a straight-ahead sex comedy and more a quirky indie film about dazed and confused young adults trying to figure out how to navigate their disappointing lives. The best they can do, most of the time, is light up another joint or knock back another shot—or maybe climb into a backseat for some lip-locking—and hope that tomorrow is somehow better.
The result is something that feels a bit like one of John Hughes' coming-of-age movies from the '80s—albeit with more profanity, a lot more pot and a considerably bigger dose of new-millennium cynicism.
And that means this: Adventureland isn't Superbad, but it's far from super good.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan; Kristen Stewart as Em Lewin; Ryan Reynolds as Mike Connell; Martin Starr as Joel; Matt Bush as Tommy Frigo; Margarita Levieva as Lisa P
Greg Mottola ( )