‘Adventureland’ proves a tame ride

I can only imagine writer/director Greg Mottola pitched Adventureland, now playing at Images Cinema, as “Superbad meets The Graduate.” If you think the combination sounds dubious, you’re right to feel concerned. Adventureland, despite its pretense of atmospheric whimsicality, relies on a plot arc that’s almost amusingly crude: The main character James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is a virgin. He wants to lose his virginity, but he’s too principled, not to say awkward, to sleep with a girl he doesn’t love. He proceeds to fall for the beautiful, troubled Em (Kristen Stewart). Can you guess how the film ends?

I’ll admit the movie would be quite relatable if it weren’t for its tenor of falsity. Who among us can’t understand the plight of a college student in a poor economic climate, faced with a third-rate summer job? The year before last, I spent a month or so working at a Talbot’s and recovering from heartbreak. That would make a great movie. I could light it in nostalgic yellow, add a romantic interest and portray my parents as distant cardboard clichés to show how alienated I was. That’s Mottola’s approach. He seems to have theorized that if the secondary characters dialed down the depth, Eisenberg might seem like less of an earnest-everygrad cliché.

Margarita Levieva’s Lisa P. is a depthless, gum-chewing airhead, a plot device more than a character. Bill Hader’s turn as the goofy theme park owner is, well, mustachioed, violent and an absolutely overt attempt at comic relief. As comedy flourishes best when directorial tongue is at least occasionally extracted from cheek, his antics often fall into mere empty clownishness. Matt Bush’s Tony Frigo, while rather one-note, at least serves to remind James about the joy of the simple pleasures while he’s being one-note. If I have spoken little of Stewart’s Em, it’s because she feels, apart from a charming smile and a sad home life, oddly distant and unreal.

There are a few notable exceptions to this general rule. Ryan Reynolds puts in a credibly charming, low-key performance as the theme park’s aging Casanova, Connell. Martin Starr’s Joel, another college-student employee, created, for me, one of the only emotionally true moments of the film: As James and Em leave a chatting group of theme park employees, he raises one-half of a broken set of glasses to his face and watches them. For a second, he captures the poignancy of longing and a delicate sort of envy. And he’s right: In many ways Adventureland is a fairytale, as gaudily embellished as the theme park itself, lit by artificial light and humor that seems forced and false. The story it’s trying to sell has the air of a derelict Disney romance, but it’s caught in the snags of its own falsity and becomes only the theme-park simulacrum of a love story. The grime and grit around the edges are more interesting and more memorable than its main characters, and Mottola stops short of really exploring these uncertain reaches. Much of the dialogue – not all, but enough – rings false and flat-footed, and key emotional moments slosh into lugubrious stammering, the atmospheric substitute for sincerity.

I can see what Mottola is trying to do with the story. If it focused more sincerely on the complexities of the side characters, it would be a better film. He simply fails to find the proper compromise between pathos and bathos. The plot is slow and predictable, and the film cushions or excuses its protagonist’s passivity as events unwind. I suppose it’s to be expected: It is, after all, based on Mottola’s life, and while there are a few cute and memorable moments of real awkwardness from James, there are also a few simply silly ones.

I felt, overall, as though Mottola were sitting there telling the story in remote, nostalgic, slightly self-aggrandizing terms. “Wasn’t I silly,” he might say as the camera zooms in on Eisenberg’s trembling eyes and lips, “but I had my heart in the right place, I really did. Wow, that was a crazy summer: kind of like The Graduate. I had the darnedest mannerisms left over from college, and I was so cutely awkward.” But this sort of affectionate parody only works when it is allowed to arise on its own.

Adventureland will give you little more than the faint, fake foretaste of your own summer, apart from a view of Stewart in tiny shorts. Worth it? You decide.