Set a mere two decades ago, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland seems like it could be taking place on a distant planet, less for the leg warmers and knee socks clinging to lower extremities than for the legions of pre-Internet Luddites who gather, like the apes at the start of 2001, to participate in those analog rituals known as ski ball and Whac-a-Mole. Drawn from Mottola’s own experiences working at a ramshackle suburban amusement park, Adventureland feels at once personal and generational, a Proustian madeleine for anyone who rode the roller coaster of postadolescence while Iran-Contra was in prime time and Wang Chung was on the radio. Which I suppose makes it more like a Proustian Astro Pop.
The year is 1987 and the place is the titular mom-and-pop Pittsburgh fun zone, where a gaggle of college students and recent grads languidly pass the summer while planning for the bigger lives in bigger cities that await them come fall. For self-serious aspiring travel writer James (Jesse Eisenberg), this was supposed to be his time to see the world, until Reaganomics trickeled down to his newly demoted father, putting the kibosh on Europe (and possibly Columbia Journalism School) and forcing James into the only summer job he could find. Even then, he’s quickly pegged by Adventureland’s mom-and-pop proprietors (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) as a “Games” guy — which, in the park’s comical caste system, is the domain of intellectuals, introverts and anyone else deemed unworthy of those bronzed gods and goddesses known as ride operators. Floating above all this as if in his own private aerie is maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds) — slightly older than the rest, with a carefully honed aura of Top Gun chic, a self-perpetuating legend that he once jammed with Lou Reed and a reputation, despite the wedding band on his finger, as the park’s resident lothario.
James learns the Adventureland ropes from Joel (Martin Starr), the pipe-smoking, Plato-quoting Games guru who, in a hilariously misguided romantic overture, gives a chaste Catholic co-worker a copy of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat as a token of his affection, insisting on the tormented Russian author’s merits even after enduring her rejection. James, meanwhile, takes a more conventional approach to his courtship of arcade worker Em (Kristen Stewart), despite telling her up front that he’s a 22-year-old virgin and later borrowing a few too many moves from his main man Connell’s playbook. Thus, Games guy meets Games girl; gradually comes into a new self-confidence; nearly blows the good thing he has by succumbing to the temptations of a gum-chewing, bra-strap-baring Rides vixen; tries to put things right again only to discover that betrayal is a two-way street.
Undeniably, Adventureland traffics in certain, perhaps inevitable cliches that have attended teen and 20-something relationship movies since time (or at least John Hughes) immemorial. But as he previously demonstrated in 2007’s Superbad, Mottola cuts so swiftly to the underlying truth of those cliches — to the euphoria and pain of youthful rites of passage — that he leaves most other movies on the subject looking especially plastic and shallow. In its mellower, more melancholic tone, however, Adventureland even more strongly recalls Mottola’s superb Slamdance-winning debut, The Daytrippers (1996), which followed a bickering Long Island family on a darkly farcical car ride into Manhattan.
The constant in Mottola’s work is his marvelous hand with actors, whom he inspires to invest the most minor or familiar of characters with a nuanced inner life that goes beyond what’s there on the page. In Adventureland, that’s particularly true of Stewart; she taps into an emotional reservoir that her role in the teen vampire behemoth Twilight neither demanded nor revealed, giving Em the inner sadness of someone who, in her early 20s, has already suffered a lifetime’s worth of disappointments. So too does the consistently resourceful, intelligent Reynolds manage, in a few fleeting appearances, to make an almost tragic figure out of his potentially sleazy slacker Don Juan. Like all of the ostensible adults in the film — from Em’s ineffectual father and status-seeking stepmother to Hader and Wiig’s Adventureland lifers — Connell may be older, but isn’t necessarily any wiser about the peculiar alchemy of finding one’s place in the world.
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By the standards of Mottola’s previous films, both of which unfolded over the course of a single day, the summer-spanning Adventureland is practically an epic canvas, but one in which Mottola sacrifices none of his romantic poet’s affection for the fleeting, ephemeral moment. Here, no detail is too small to be glazed with the amber of memory, least of all whatever happened to be playing on the radio when you made out with a girl, got your heart broken, forgave a friend. To that end, Mottola and music supervisor Tracy McKnight have mined their collective unconscious for more than 40 period songs that capture the ’80s in all its musical permutations — hair metal, new-wave pop, New York punk and everything else we had no choice but to listen to before iPods gave us the ability to hyperpersonalize the soundtracks of our lives. I’ve seen Mottola’s movie twice, and both times it has inspired feelings of joy, sadness and a profound yearning for the unrecoverable past. Maybe I’m projecting too much false nostalgia onto this modest but poignant Gen X touchstone, if not the ’80s themselves. Or maybe, you just had to be there.