See here for an earlier blurb. Since a lot of the movie's appeal is nostalgic, I thought about including more data on the social history behind the movie, but that'll go up in a separate post, probably at GNXP.com. Briefly, though, Adventureland does a good job of capturing the twilight period of society and culture after it had gotten over the dopey counter-culture of the late 1960s and early '70s. Starting around 1989, though, and peaking in 1991 - '92, a new wave of generalized hysteria infected the culture, giving birth to Generation X.
Set in 1987, the movie provides a refreshing glimpse of what it was like when people were still pretty carefree -- especially the relation between the sexes, which would soon become poisoned by moral panics about date rape, sexual harassment, and other legal fictions. The soundtrack captures the zeitgeist well too: even the sad music is catchy and upbeat, reflecting the heyday of "college radio" music, before grunge and alternative rock.
Another key to the movie's success is in casting actors who are all about the right age -- early 20s. Em is a bit younger, but that works out for the best, since we're supposed to feel sympathetic. Nothing is worse than movies about a particular stage of life, which star people who are much too old to be able to get into character.
The rest of this review contains spoilers.
On the surface, Adventureland is a male coming-of-age story. However, just like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, the movie is really about something else entirely: it is a movie that encourages single women to choose the more secure and stable boyfriend, however goofy or awkward he may be, over the more volatile and therefore more exciting boyfriends.
The male lead, James, faces no dilemma in choosing who to pursue: there is the female protagonist, Em, who he shares a lot in common with, who is pretty, and who gets a pretty sympathetic treatment from the writer; and then there is the elusive hot chick, Lisa P., who he doesn't relate to at all and who, although not caricatured, hardly gets portrayed in a positive light. We are never lead to believe that James has fallen emotionally for Lisa P., and since Em is pretty cute herself, it's a no-brainer throughout the entire movie that James should go for Em.
On the other hand, Em has become emotionally attached to and physically involved with two men: James and the smooth, older musician / technician Connell. This is the true source of dramatic tension -- will she stay addicted to the handsome, aloof guitar player, or will she fall for the guy she describes as "sweet"? The details about James' experiences and coming of age are not the point of the movie -- they serve only to establish that he's the right guy for Em.
Unlike the female character in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Em is still young enough to fall irrationally in love -- the actress who plays her was 17 during filming -- so in this movie, ending up with the safer boyfriend doesn't result from sobering up to reality and making a clear-headed decision to settle down. Something inside just compels her to. Because the focus here is on falling for someone -- which is involuntary -- and since young people act mostly on impulses, we're kept more in suspense about whether she'll end up with the good guy or the bad boy.
So, in contrast to the more didactic message of The 40 Year-Old Virgin, this movie only tries to remind young girls of who they should end up with. Even though adolescents are ruled by their passions, there is still a rational, calculating piece of their brain that takes into account -- however unconsciously -- the pros and cons of potential boyfriends. When dealing with middle-aged women, it is more appropriate for the movie to be a list of instructions to a compliant audience on how to behave. But Adventureland is more like a nervous advertiser that must cater to an unpredictable youth market. It therefore makes the best case it can for the benefits of choosing James over Connell, without coming off as preachy, and then just sits back and hopes that the female viewers will be persuaded on a gut level.
There's more to talk about, but in all the reviews I've read, the aspect of the movie that's least appreciated is who the movie is actually about -- Em, rather than James. I'll save a treatment of the movie's nostalgia for a follow-up post at GNXP.com, where there will be plenty of graphs on the change over time in the number of amusement parks, job-holding among young people, and so on.