Selling nostalgia is a tricky thing. While you already have the advantage of being able to tap into people’s hazy memories and playing off their vague recognition and familiarity, you risk relying on such a lazy device to the point where you become guilty of The Wedding Singer syndrome, wherein the entire purpose was to throw in as many 1980s props and references as possible so the audience would go, “oh yeah, I remember that.”
Greg Mottola’s Adventureland also has to handle the major issue of being based on the writer/director’s post-college experiences, and possibly falling prey to the misconception that just because it happened in real life, it must be interesting. Mottola’s Superbad suffered in similar ways, because the title and opening disco dancing silhouette served absolutely no purpose, and just looked like it was thrown in to justify the use of the title song, and make it sound retro and 1970s (indeed, most of Superbad has a very Dazed and Confused feel).
Superbad was able to get away with this sort of pandering mainly because it was funny, and with low-brow comedies, one tends to forgive a lot of problems (which is why the second half of Superbad is a drag, it stops being funny in favor of forced sincerity). Adventureland is cast like a comedy, SNL‘s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play the husband and wife managers of a theme park, Ryan Reynolds plays a supporting role as a lothario/mechanic, Freaks and Geeks‘ Martin Starr plays his standard nerd character, and Mottola, in this case named James, is played by Michael Cera stand-in Jesse Eisenberg.
To be fair, Eisenberg, playing the stammering, fidgety, shy but sweet lead (though he won’t be growing up to be Hugh Grant), beat Cera to the punch with his identical role in the superb 2002 film Roger Dodger. But Cera has turned the caricature into an institution of awkward in recent years, while Eisenberg has faded into comparative obscurity, getting cast mostly when a vaguely unkempt looking young Jewish kid is needed (seriously, in the intervening years since Roger Dodger, he might have been better off changing his name to Jewsy Eisenfro). Regardless of the well filled-out cast (which also includes Wendie Malick, Josh Pais, and Kristen Stewart, looking like she needs a nap,) and the fact that it is structured like a comedy, Adventureland just isn’t funny. But it doesn’t appear it is intended to be a comedy, there really aren’t jokes (unless you count the character played by Matt Bush, whose entire function is to repeatedly punch Eisenberg in the nuts) and the overlong running time is mostly given to a standard budding romance between Stewart and Eisenberg, a relationship borne out of boredom, trying to get through the summer as underpaid amusement park staff in a small town.
What’s odd is that Eisenberg is also given the age-old conundrum of being a virgin “waiting for the right one,” without it being a religious issue. This kind of cliché is generally reserved for comedies, and for movies about teenagers, not a 22 year-old who wants to go to Columbia grad school. It seems very out of place, and despite the specificity of each character’s age, they all act like 17 year-olds, lacking the standard cynicism that would have kicked in by the time someone gets a college degree. Combined with the nonsense of the seemingly tacked on fantasy-like conclusion, which involves a chance meeting, pouring rain, and mismatched lovers, the supposed authenticity of this period piece disappears. In fact, the only thing that really sets the movie in 1987 and not today is that Eisenberg’s character intends to go to grad school to study… Journalism. Looks like Mottola had a hidden joke up his sleeve all along.
P.S. There’s really nothing overly wrong with Adventureland as a movie, but there’s nothing distinctive about it either. It just… exists.