Set a mere two decades ago, Greg Mottola's Adventureland seems as if it could be taking place on a distant planet, less for its leg warmers and knee socks than for the legions of pre-Internet Luddites who gather to participate in those analog rituals known as Skee-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 post-adolescence while Iran-Contra was in prime time and Wang Chung was on the radio.
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 bigger lives in bigger cities. Self-serious aspiring travel writer James (Jesse Eisenberg) was supposed to be seeing the world, but Reaganomics trickled 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 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 the bronzed gods and goddesses known as Ride Operators. Floating above all of 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 his wedding band, of being 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. 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; and 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 twenty-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.
The constant in Mottola's work is the way he inspires actors to invest the most minor or familiar of characters with a nuanced inner life. In Adventureland, that's particularly true of Stewart, who taps into an emotional reservoir that her role in the teen vampire behemoth Twilight neither demanded nor revealed. So, too, does Reynolds manage, in a few fleeting appearances, to make an almost tragic figure out of his potentially sleazy, slacker Don Juan.
By the standards of Mottola's previous films, both of which unfolded over the course of a single day, the season-spanning Adventureland is practically an epic, 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 (or MTV) when you made out with a girl, got your heart broken or forgave a friend. To that end, Mottola and music supervisor Tracy McKnight have mined their collective unconscious for more than forty period songs that capture the '80s in all its musical permutations. I've seen this movie twice, and both times it's inspired feelings of joy, sadness and a profound yearning for the unrecoverable past. Maybe I'm projecting too much false nostalgia onto this modest Gen-X touchstone, if not the '80s themselves. Or maybe you just had to be there.
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