Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, in 'Adventureland'

Dir. Greg Mottola
(2009, R, 107 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

The director of Adventureland is Greg Mottola, who previously presided over Superbad, and thankfully he seems to have mellowed since that venture. The previous, Judd Apatow-produced film was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and this film Mottola wrote himself, inspired by his own experience working at a Long Island amusement park in his youth. It’s a warmer and more humane film. It doesn’t contain many belly laughs but isn’t aiming for them; it’s a low-key affair in muted, naturalistic tones. It surprises with its maturity.

Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale) stars as James Brennan, a recent college grad who takes romance so seriously that he tells people he got his heart broken after he’s dumped by a girl he’d been seeing for eleven days. When plans for a European vacation fall through, the under-qualified James — he majored in comparative literature and Renaissance studies — is forced to take a job at a local amusement park in Pittsburgh, where he meets Em Lewin, a girl more troubled than he thinks she is. Em is played by Kristen Stewart, most famous for Twilight but probably more notable for her strong work in The Cake Eaters and Into the Wild. She is so poised and natural on screen it’s hard to believe she’s only nineteen-years-old — seventeen when Adventureland was filmed. She’s on her way to becoming a major star.

There’s a love triangle of sorts with a cad named Connell, played by Ryan Reynolds. From the point of view of the park’s young employees, he’s a mysterious rock-god, a confident older man who oozes chick-magnet cool. He has a band! He played with Lou Reed (or so he claims)! Pull back from the insulated world of these star-struck kids and reality sets in; we realize he’s something much sadder: an emotionally stunted lech still working as an amusement park mechanic in his 30s and cheating on his wife with whichever teenage girls are naive enough — or damaged enough — to buy what he’s selling. Reynolds, usually cast as loveable goof-balls, acquits himself well as the smarmy Connell, capturing his low-rent suavity and revealing underneath the rudderless loser who would be nothing if he didn’t have these kids to impress. He’s having an affair with Em; that he romances her in his mother’s basement tells you all you need to know about him.

The film takes place in the 1980s and includes abundant period detail. I can’t judge the veracity of the specific details — I didn’t come of age until the ‘90s — but Mottola employs them with a sense of lived-in authenticity. The film feels like it’s of a time, and not just parodying the familiar conventions of an era. It makes us fondly remember times when music not only spoke to us but for us, which all of us have no matter which decade we grew up in. I’m twenty-five, only a few years older than the characters in this film, but still I thought of the good old days.