There’s not much new on the surface of writer-director Greg Mottola’s post-collegiate romantic dramedy Adventureland, unless its musical immersion in ‘80s indie-kid nostalgia counts: “Pale Blue Eyes,” Hüsker Dü, and a noodling Yo La Tengo score for character, Crowded House and Poison for context. But though its comedic incidence of puking and cock-punching tallies an intermediate youth-follies score, the heart of Mottola’s autobiographical paean to young male mortification lies in the one-on-one scenes between his able leads, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. In a witty bar dialogue, Eisenberg flounders with pseudo-confessional, haltingly Woody Allenesque bravado meant to seduce; as he dodges the issue of his virginity by declaring a past crush unworthy of the sentiments of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 57, Stewart listens bemused, coolly applying her experienced upper hand: “Stop saying intercourse.” He’s a less confident, neuroticized variation on the John Cusack heroes of 20 years ago (proffering a mixtape of his top “bummer songs”) while she seems heir to the gravitas and mystery of the fledgling Jennifer Jason Leigh. The fresh truths of their hesitant stumble through the mating dance render the movie’s goofier pleasures trifling but digestible.
Adventureland again finds Eisenberg, who unsentimentally portrayed the slappable teen antihero of The Squid and the Whale, as a sexually naive Reagan-era smartass, here as newly graduated James Brennan, Oberlin ‘87. Stranded in his native Pittsburgh for the summer after his parents’ funding of a pre-grad-school European trek falls through, he’s forced to work in a game booth at the local amusement park, where mulleted ball-tossing contestants are outfoxed by the gluing of derbies onto the heads of mannequins and the warping of basketball hoops into impossible ovals. Falling quickly for fellow alt-rock misfit Em (Stewart), James plies her with a stash of pot, but insecurely foresees the familiar burn of rejection when she advises that they “go slow,” little suspecting that she’s the latest conquest of the park’s maintenance man (Ryan Reynolds), a married, guitar-toting Casanova who sneaks his conquests off to Mom’s paneled basement.
Coming off helming the Judd Apatow-produced smash Superbad, Mottola goes for more blatantly tender notes in filming his pet project, and Stewart’s alienated cool chick has more lifelike insecurities and foibles than the targeted girls in that earlier cherry-popping quest. At its laziest, the script saddles the Adventureland workers with a gallery of doltish or vicious parents—Em gets an oily lawyer dad and witchy stepmother—recalling irksome traits of the John Hughes oeuvre. Standouts in support are Martin Starr as a depressive park vet and Russian Lit scholar whose morning-after gift to a big-haired makeout partner is a Gogol paperback, and Margarita Levieva as the ditzy A-Land bombshell who unexpectedly becomes James’s fallback in pursuit of shedding his “scarlet V.” Clowning by broom-stached Bill Hader and sighing Kristen Wiig, as the couple who resourcefully mismanage the rides and corndogs, amuses but seems imported from a different, Caddyshack-like universe; mercifully they don’t hijack whole reels like Hader and Seth Rogen’s cops in Superbad.
Amid the antics, loose joints, and threatening customers, Eisenberg and Stewart peak with a tearful realization of joint betrayal (before James pulls a vengeful dick move worthy of his Squid jerk). The aftermath wobbles—a rain-soaked climax in New York feels like a reconsidered ending for a cornier, brighter tale—but Mottola’s stars mine an emotional adventureland of first love whenever he can’t keep the action bobbing along on alt-rock classics and fluorescent summer nights.