Jesse Eisenberg, right, and Martin Starr dream of fannypacks of the future.
Some will hear the first guitar blast during Adventureland’s opening moments, and think nothing of it. For others, The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” is such a touchstone that writer/director Greg Mottola (Superbad) may have you in the palm of his hand before you’ve seen a single frame of the actual movie.
Nostalgia is among the trickiest of cinematic bets, because you can lose those with no connection to the story’s time frame just as easily as you hook its contemporaries. Mottola was clearly inspired by personal reminiscence from the summer of 1987, but Adventureland never feels like a wallow in “weren’t the mid-’80s cheesy-but-awesome?” It’s of its time without being about its time.
Mottola’s protagonist, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), is a college graduate whose Europe-trekking and Ivy League grad school plans wind up in limbo after his dad loses his job. James is forced to take a summer job on the midway at the titular amusement park in his hometown of Pittsburgh, and quickly finds a kindred why-am-I-here spirit in Joel (Martin Starr). But his even-more-kindred spirit may be co-worker Em (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart), whose romantic situation can be described politely as “complicated.”
Mottola does a terrific job of establishing the milieu of the run-down Adventureland, with its carnival attempts to con the customers. He was also smart enough to cast Starr as the bitterly seething intellectual Joel, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the park’s managers, and a pleasantly restrained Ryan Reynolds as the park’s lothario handyman. The script is full of the small touches that give a story a kick of specificity: a letter-deficient sign at a roadside bar advertising the local Rolling Stones cover band as “Tumbling Dic;” the way the park’s super-hot-girl employee is known by the drooling guys simply as “Lisa P.”; the agony of any service sector employee being stuck listening to the same song (“Rock Me Amadeus,” in this case) over and over again. Even the broader comedy proves enjoyable, like James’ frantic dash from an angry customer set to Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law.”
But the real appeal comes from the romance, and particularly from Eisenberg. At first it seems as though Mottola is forcing Eisenberg to channel Michael Cera, but his star eventually finds his own appealing take on sensitive, hyper-literate romanticism. There’s something perfectly pitched about James’ affected over-use of the expression “per se,” his embarrassment at being caught sporting wood at a swimming-pool party, and even about his willingness to indulge his perpetually immature “sack-whacking” high-school buddy Frigo (Matt Bush).
If anything feels out of synch, it’s the other half of James’ relationship. Personally, I don’t get Stewart—all moody looks and breathy line readings—as an object of desire, but Mottola doesn’t always give her a lot to work with. He clearly doesn’t write his female characters with the same clarity he writes his male characters, and Stewart is stuck with reacting to some over-the-top situations involving both Em’s affair with a married man and her quarrels with her father and stepmother. Mottola ends up trying too hard to make Em dark and complicated, rather than making her the kind of girl we’d like to see our appealing hero wind up with.
It’s also true that Adventureland works in large part because it touches on something beyond the specifics of this story. A generation of McJob-hoppers who were only in training pants in 1987 will still know how it feels to look for a silver lining in a place where you really don’t want to be. Those who did come of age during that era will remember the way music outside the synth-pop or hair-metal mainstream could come to define your world-view. Mottola delivers a sweet reflection on summer love at a summer job. His just happened to be in 1987—and you didn’t have to be there.