As any class of '87 college graduate can attest, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But mostly, it was the worst of times. It was the time of Reagan, covert wars, recession, and the crack epidemic. Throw in a liberal arts college degree in one of the humanities (with subsequent poverty), malaise, angst, and ennui, and that's why I don't heart the 80s. And so it goes for James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), the hopeless romantic on the verge of a late blooming coming of age in Adventureland.
James has fairly modest dreams of a budget-conscious post-college summer in Europe, followed by grad school at Columbia, where he plans to study journalism and change the world. These dreams are unceremoniously scuttled by his parents (Wendie Malick and Jack Gilpin), who inform him that Mr. Brennan's downsizing will result in some downscaling of the family lifestyle. James will have to get a summer job. As it turns out, a degree in comparative literature has given him surprisingly few skills considered marketable in Pittsburgh, which is how James ends up working the midway at Adventureland, a low-rent amusement park where other misfits misspend their youths.
Will James' stint as an underpaid carnie teach him things he never learned, but should have, in college? Duh. He'll also find love, and find that the course of true love never did run smooth (but he knew that from being a comp lit major), and discover that a baggie full of joints is a great way to win friends and influence people, including Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) the hottest, most coveted girl at the park. The true object of James' affection, however, is Em (Kristen Stewart), a smart, mopey NYU student with an emotionally complicated life.
Adventureland, written and directed by Greg Mottola (The Day Trippers, Superbad) travels a well-trod path, but with a light step and unconventional tone. Adventureland eschews the dopey immaturity one might expect from a story that features sex (and male virgins), drugs, teenagers, and carnies, and is instead surprisingly smart and sweet (and bittersweet), adding a few new twists to the old young-man-coming-of-age story. Sex and drugs and rock and roll figure prominently, but of course. The music is rolled into the story, however, in keeping with Mottola's general tendency to avoid exploiting the 80s for comic-nostalgic effect. James endures the torture of "Rock Me, Amadeus" because Lisa P. is a would-be dancer and because the local disco is one of the few places to hang out when Adventureland closes. Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" is James' favorite song, but it's equally important because it's a song that Connell (Ryan Reynolds) doesn't know. Connell is the park maintenance man, slightly older (and therefore more pathetic) than the other employees, married, and the kind of guy who carries a guitar case and a tool belt to work. Legend has it Connell once jammed with Lou Reed. The age-appropriate soundtrack also features Hüsker Dü and a Foreigner tribute band. As I said, the best of times, and the worst of times.
The ensemble cast is large, and includes Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the park's silly-serious owners, and Martin Starr as James' pal Joel, an overeducated, pipe-smoking Gogol fan. Adventureland gives all of the secondary characters unexpected depth and complexity (even when they are not very deep or complex persons). They supply more than local color or comic relief, and go beyond mere caricature to become substantial and interesting characters in their own right. The film meanders and drifts pleasantly, like a mildly buzzed park patron, from one attraction to the next with a narrative that captures the aimlessness and endless possibility (including the possibility of disappointment) of a summer night.