Set in the summer of 1987, Adventureland takes its title from a seedy Pittsburgh-area amusement park where the hero, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), hopes to make enough money to enter Columbia's graduate school of journalism in the fall. With its rigged game booths and nausea-inducing rides, the park is a sordid limbo for overeducated slackers. But when James settles into Adventureland, it lives up to its name. And so does this funky, heartfelt movie.
An uncommon coming-of-age film, Adventureland is a bittersweet joy. Its humor and romance are refreshing because the writer-director, Greg Mottola, realizes that maturity is a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward process. James dreams of becoming a travel writer the way Charles Dickens was a travel writer: "He visited prisons and insane asylums," the aspiring journalist explains, excitedly. But James discovers more primal mysteries a few miles from his middle-class home than he would have done staying in Europe's youth hostels. The person who reveals them to him is Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart), a co-worker who's fetching in a sleek, smart way that's not fashionable in Pittsburgh circa '87, where the ideal is a voluptuous disco dancer named Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva).
In a triumphant bar scene, James says he was reading a Shakespeare sonnet -"being your slave what should I do but tend upon the hours and times of your desire?" - when he realized he didn't love a former girlfriend. "I didn't want to tend upon her hours or her times," James says, and he would not go to bed with her. Em, who's about to attend New York University and is disillusioned beyond her years, can't believe James didn't go to bed with the girl anyway.
When does romance get in the way of a boy-man opening himself up to intimacy? That is the question of Adventureland. James' plight touches Em, but she can't cope with his youthful complexity. She's preoccupied with a married older man, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a local rocker who repairs rides at the park.
Eisenberg, as James, plays cluelessness and sincerity with equal force, and Stewart tempers emotional turmoil with a flexible intelligence. They're perfect together, but they're hardly the whole show. Reynolds is surprisingly attractive as a good-looking guy who is confident only on the surface; Levieva is a firecracker as the physically scintillating, otherwise conventional Lisa P.
With his usual empathy, Jack Gilpin fills in the blanks of James' dad, a closet alcoholic who is sheepish around his son, as if he knows that he embodies a life full of regrets.
The movie doesn't bog down in despair. Mottola has quickness, savvy and flair; he never lets you forget there's an amusement park to run. By the end, you feel you really know how it works under the cracked auspices of its owner-operators, Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig). He's emphatic, and she's recessive, but they're a solid couple. They appear to have learned what James and Em are just discovering. Being on the same wavelength is overrated; tuning into a different wavelength may be just the ticket. And love can be found even among the ragged stuffed toys and questionable corn dogs of Adventureland.
(Miramax Films) Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Greg Mottola. Rated R for language, drug use and sexual references. Time 107 minutes.