Nothing makes you realize summer isn’t actually all that special quite like your first summer job. It’s a certain small death of childhood, the realization that the stretch between the long weekends of Memorial Day and Labor Day won’t always be defined by a lack of responsibility. Real life is coming for you and it’s coming fast: minimum wage, inflexible hours, and a parade of malignant dunces in the form of customers you cater to and co-workers you share a break room with. There are few films more in tune with the weight of that small death and how we navigate it than Greg Mottola’s 2009 maybe-masterpiece Adventureland.
In crafting his follow-up to 2007’s smash hit Superbad, it would have been easy to coast on the same loose, improvisational teen-boy humor that made the film one of the most-quoted of the decade. Instead, Mottola stripped it down, making a film that functions both as a pseudo-chronological follow-up (Superbad is a high-school graduation adventure, Adventureland a post-college hang) and a passive takedown of his prior work — it seems at times designed to piss off anyone hoping for more jokes about the ways in which idiot teenage boys want to fuck their classmates. The result is a quieter, more contemplative, and altogether more successful film.
Adventureland follows Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan, a college graduate with a literature degree bound for a summer in Europe (a graduation gift from his parents) and then grad school at Columbia — or so he thinks. Reagan’s America looms large throughout Mottola’s Pittsburgh ’87, and James finds out over a celebratory graduation lunch with his parents that his father has been demoted. Europe off the table, he’ll need to get a summer job, and his parents are now far less supportive of something as frivolous as a second degree in a useless major. Despondent, he roams town submitting applications to a handful of dead-end gigs. His complete lack of work experience means the only place in town desperate enough to hire him is Adventureland, a dumpy local amusement park run by married couple Bobby (Bill Hader and Bill Hader’s mustache) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig). Seasonal jobs of any sort tend to attract a returning cast of characters; with summer already under way, James soon finds himself a new cog in a moving machine. He finds a kindred spirit in Martin Starr’s Joel, a pipe-smoking weirdo studying Russian literature, and quickly sparks up a romance with Kristen Stewart’s Em, an art history major at NYU spending her summer back at home.
Adventureland is a crummy park full of rigged games and rides in desperate need of a safety inspection (which they would fail), making for a crummy job of putting up with entitled 20-something yuppies and latchkey kids whose parents are too tired to discipline, all of whom are having the best day of their summer while each day the park’s employees sleepwalk through an endless cycle of worsts. Mottola fills in the film’s blank spaces with shots of delighted crowds on roller coasters and carousels juxtaposed with the Games crew of James, Joel, and Em just standing around, waiting for their shift to end (or at least for one of their five-minute bathroom breaks every two hours). Get used to it, the world seems to say — this is where a degree in the arts gets you.
It’s the same existential malaise that hangs over the last days of summer before school starts again. Those days are weighed down by the awareness that real life is coming for you in just a few short days, that every trip to the pool or bike ride with your friends is one of the last. For the Adventureland employees, their whole season is the last day of summer. There’s an impending doom on the horizon, with real life and a Reaganomics-driven culture lurking at the end of the calendar (or even the end of the workday in Em’s case — life at home with a passive father and a cruel stepmother is hard).
Eisenberg brings his signature twitchy nuance to James, a romantic in an increasingly practical world trying desperately to cling to a life he’d only just started to build for himself — one on a creaky foundation to begin with. His romance with Em starts predictably sweet, the sort of summer love he’s grown up reading about in books and seeing in movies. But James’s protagonist syndrome clouds reality: He’s the new guy on the job, moving through an ecosystem of preexisting relationships. Mottola plays his hand well here, showing the viewer early on that things aren’t as simple as James has imagined them to be well before he finds out for himself. One of the film’s primary plots involves the James/Em romance being complicated by Em’s affair with the park’s (married) handyman Connell (a career-best turn from Ryan Reynolds; Mottola is one of the only directors who seems to understand that the actor’s signature snark has an inherent skeeviness to it). It’s a confident move, taking what lesser filmmakers would use as a second-act twist and reframing it as something that makes a sweet summer romance feel doomed from the start (aren’t they all, though?).
There’s certainly an argument to be made that the film wraps itself up a bit too neatly (after a falling-out with Em, James moves to New York and reconciles with her), but there’s a nuance to it that stops it from feeling wholly unearned. It feels less a studio-mandated happy ending and more a rejection of the selfishness and cynicism James and Em’s world seems to be pushing them to accept. Mottola drew on his experiences working a summer gig at a Long Island theme park. As such, the film ends in a place that feels true to the vaguely universal experience of a dead-end summer job: They suck, but they’re also the place where your goofy boss grabs a baseball bat and chases down the guido who’s trying to kick your ass. They’re where you spend a whole shift zonked out of your mind on pot cookies and almost get knifed over a giant stuffed panda. You can’t stay there forever and you shouldn’t want to, even if there’s a certain comfort in the hazy purgatory they provide in the bridge between childhood and adulthood. But you can be glad something is over without throwing out the good moments (however fleeting) with the bad. Summer is finite, but in an increasingly unsentimental world, there’s something to be said for refusing to let a good thing die away just because Labor Day has come and gone.