Part of the attraction to nostalgia is knowing. It's the innate recognition of the time, the place, the sensations and the sentiments. It's memory reconfigured as reality, yet filtered so as to remain sparkling. When done right, such wistfulness is winning and wise. Done poorly, and it's merely a period piece implausibility. For writer/director Greg Mottola, the late '80s represent the final act in a sort of social innocence, a time when even college kids had to ask Mom and Dad for the family car. After the wild success of Superbad, the filmmaker is back with his homage to one significant summer -- Adventureland -- and it turns out to be an early 2009 favorite.
For graduate James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), life is just not turning out right. His parents promised to fund his planned trip to Europe. Instead, they hit him with the horrible news: They cannot afford to pay his way. Even worse, Columbia University grad school may be out as well. Forced to get a summer job, James winds up at Adventureland, a pathetic Pennsylvania amusement park run by Bobby (Bill Hader), his slightly dense wife Paulette (Kristen Wiig), and a rogue's gallery of social rejects including uber-nerd Joel (Martin Starr), arrested adolescent Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), and musician turned handyman Connell (Ryan Reynolds). James also meets Em (Kristen Stewart), a like-minded gal with dreams of something bigger. As their relationship blossoms, our hero gains a greater perspective on life, living, and what's truly important. Article continues below
Like that first scent of autumn on a warm August evening, Adventureland is recollection made magical. It's not some stupid sex comedy, or a John Hughes-inspired romp through Greed Decade sound cues. Instead, Mottola manages the near impossible: He takes a small story in an isolated locale and turns it into a primer for everyone's personal emotions and a statement of universal truths. This is an ear-to-ear experience, the kind of movie that gets your smile beaming from one side of your face to the other. And it's not just the expertly-realized details or pitch-perfect performances. Mottola makes this version of suburban Pittsburgh, with its dead-end aspirations and junk car climate, into something close to Camelot.
This is entertainment as a comfy chair, a look at life without the stresses of symbolism and significance. Eisenberg and Stewart are exceptional, bringing nuance and perception to what are basically young people hanging out. There are no Kevin Smith-inspired trips down memory lane, no pop culture laden riffs on whose better, The Replacements or Husker Du (both represented in the magnificent era-apropos soundtrack). Instead, the dialogue digs no deeper than simple human hungers -- the feelings of acceptance/rejection that come with the destruction of dreams and the realignment of individual priorities. Everyone at Adventureland is damaged in some way. By coming together and sharing their situation, they discover that most important of bonding balms: friendship.
Eisenberg literally steals the show here, underplaying his role to the point of near inertness. But it's the perfect reactive performance, a chance to let the others bounce off of him and still reflect his own inner needs. Stewart is also sensational as the stock pretty girl with a soiled soul. Her final scenes with her uncaring parents are precise in their pain. Surrounding them are sensational supporting turns from Hader, Wiig, and Reynolds. But the movie's real MVP is Starr, doling out his desperation in witty, insightful snippets. Without them, Adventureland would be an intriguing two-person piece with occasional shout-outs to Lou Reed (a group lynchpin here). With them, it's a minor masterpiece.
Of course, one can get carried away while traveling down a motion picture memory lane, and some may see Adventureland as nothing more than reminiscence taken to post-millennial ironic extremes. Here's hoping they see the movie for what it really is: wonderful.