After the success of Superbad, Adventureland director Greg Mottola addresses viewers who believe the reasons for delayed onset of sex were all in their head, and not in the ungainly dorkhood of adolescence. Green college graduate James (Jesse Eisenberg) is past hysterical horniness and, per Eisenberg’s cuddly precocious-naive routine (cf. Squid and the Whale), focused on résumés. Unlike other fresh degree-holders on screen (or Kicking and Screaming’s Grover, detoured from “A-list Park Slope”), James ends up working at a purgatorial Pennsylvania amusement park, in Mottola’s tonally mixed 1987-set tale.
There — the locale’s a neat shorthand for post-graduation’s heady cocktail of hype and dead air — James joins a motley crew wrangling visitors through rigged games or jangly rides. But low-key Em (Kristen Stewart) is James’s own main attraction, amidst the comic bits of business from owners Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and contentedly second fiddle Kirsten Wiig), stranded intellectual Joel (Martin Starr), Apatovian dick-slapper Tommy (Matt Bush), and designated hot girl Lisa P. (Margerita Levieva). Ryan Reynolds is the stuck-in-gear ex-almost-famous maintenance guy, married but sleeping with Em on the depressing sly. Cue the park’s 80s loudspeaker rock (“Amadeus,” “Modern Love”), counteracted by Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Velvet Underground as Em draws in James.
The movie as a whole has two sides — between the sometimes unenthusiastic repeat gags that bumper the action or (in Tommy’s case) practically become a plot device, and the more interesting tentative courtship between James and Em — though Mottola is more invested in the latter rhythm, miles from a Superbad 2 top-this larfathon. Em is another damaged cool girl to a certain extent — by any account, sonnet-quoting James swaps one kind of romanticizing for another — but Stewart imbues the role with layers beyond manufactured presence. It’s easily the best performance (and in the can before Twilight), especially in a couple of breakdown scenes, and more absorbing than the alleged main role, which doesn’t entirely come off the page (nowhere more than in the tacked-on ending).
Mottola’s 1997 debut feature, The Daytrippers, embeds us with a Long Island family driving into the city to look for a son-in-law suspected of an affair. Despite the danger of falling into a 90s-indie gab-fest, it had a real sense for disappointment, which is probably where the best of Adventureland lies too (so prematurely, as the irony goes). Mottola doesn’t get too far with the families in his newer movie (who still provide housing): Em’s wealthy father’s new wife is a grotesque of the decade’s status-consciousness, and James’s father, whose secret unemployment is the reason his son can’t do Europe, might as well have frowny clown make-up as played by Jack Gilpin.
Class was a topic of conversation and identity in The Daytrippers and Mottola telegraphs a little of that here; blithe blue-collar disco queen Lisa P. makes vague reference to her father being out of work. As for Eisenberg, he’s at no loss for work with several projects in production but he runs the risk of turning the two-step of overthinking and underthinking into something routine. Ultimately, Adventureland’s hybrid is another entry in a decades-long line of summertime coming-of-age films.