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Though it's set at a low-rent amusement park, Adventureland is essentially a summer camp movie, a nostalgia-tinged look back at the balmy nights and summer flings you may or may not have had in your youth. Nothing in the movie really justifies its setting in 1987, despite some laughs about Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" and trendy fashion, but it does help add a retro-cool sheen to what's essentially a very standard coming-of-age dramedy. Coming off Superbad, Mottola is dialing up the sentimentality and realism here, and what he achieves is admirable if a little ho-hum.
He made a swell pick by casting Jesse Eisenberg, kind of a brainier Michael Cera, in the lead role. As James, a college graduate whose big Europe trip is replaced with a stint working games at Adventureland, Eisenberg is awkward and geeky and infinitely relatable, translating the teenage angst he showed in The Squid and the Whale into a more adult kind of ennui.
Adventureland is almost entire James's story, with a brief dip or two into the story of Em (Kristen Stewart), the sulky girl whom James is immediately smitten with when he begins his thankless job at the games booth. Living with a stepmom she loathes while on break from NYU, Em has been having a dead-end affair with Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the kind of king of a small town who lies about having jammed with Lou Reed and ignores his pretty bleached-blonde wife in favor of hanging out with younger kids.
Hanging around the fringes of the story, while James tentatively starts dating Em while being pursued by local sexpot Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), are comedians like Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig and Martin Starr, each of them making their little impact but not establishing much for their characters. Much more interesting to watch are lesser-known actors like Levieva, who precisely evokes both Lisa P's insecurities and awareness of her own sexual power.
For the most part the plotlessness of Adventureland is fine, as the movie skates along on its own general good vibes and insight into that particular summertime feeling of having no idea where your life will go next. But after one too many Lou Reed montages, or maybe the second boner joke, the movie can feel a little threadbare, and not nearly as deep, interesting or original as it hopes to be.
But the movie is funny enough, and an enjoyable ride overall, and most importantly evokes those familiar nostalgic feelings that get you looking over old camp photos one random night. That patina of memory takes away a little from the realism that characterizes a bit of Adventureland; even when the movie delves into sadness or some genuinely raw emotions, it mostly gets swept under the banner of "that one crazy summer." But Mottola gets credit for trying, and once again depicting teenagers with a thought or two in their head, even if sex and drugs are, as always, the main agenda.