Adventureland, writer/director Greg Mottola's semiautobiographical ode to the languorous time just before adulthood responsibilities begin, makes you want to ditch your career (if it hasn't already ditched you), don some mildly humiliating uniform and return to the mundane summer job of your youth. Who can argue against cash flow, solidarity with a new peer group and no responsibility more strenuous than remembering who ordered the Sanka?
But for Adventureland's protagonist, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), spending his first postcollegiate summer working at a shabby regional amusement park is, at least initially, an insult to his very being. It's the summer of 1987, and he's supposed to be having a proper European tour with his Beautiful People friends. Instead he's stuck in Pittsburgh, Pa., because his alcoholic father (Jack Gilpin) is having employment issues and, as his almost gleefully unsympathetic mother (Wendy Malick) explains it, they can no longer help fund his trip. Or graduate school. (See the top 10 movie performances of 2008.)
James isn't technically a member of the entitled class the Brennans' family home is modest but he acts that way. As he whines his way through the early minutes of the movie, it seems what he needs is a character-developing stint at the dump. Like Zach Braff's character in Garden State, James is a visitor in his hometown, convinced that bigger is better (his goal, naturally, is to move to New York). But that's where the similarity ends. James is no morose hipster caught up in memories of the past. Nor is he Benjamin Braddock, lolling about, passively awaiting seduction. James is seeking the future as fast as he can and resenting any minute he has to spend in this awful present.
Eisenberg, like Superbad's Michael Cera and their soul grandfather Woody Allen, possesses that ineffable something that makes it possible for him to be both a believable romantic lead and a bleater. He bleats his way through several unsuccessful job interviews. When he finally lands a job from the odd but endearing couple that runs Adventureland (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), he has the temerity to bleat about his assignment. He'd prefer Adventureland's slightly more glamorous Rides division, which he believes himself more suited for than Games. They shoot him down, with kindly conviction: "Oh no, you're Games." (See the top 10 movie bromances.)
This young actor, who was equally persuasive in Roger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale, has the edge on Cera in terms of range. When Eisenberg narrows his eyes, thrusts his chin forward and huffs, we're not sure if he's a bona fide jerk or not, whereas Cera is always a smart-mouthed sweetie pie. But in that moment of James' degradation, in his acceptance of the humbling Games uniform, he magically transforms into a guy we could see spending the summer with.
The rest of the Adventureland gang is good company as well. There's gangly, pimply, well-read Joel (Martin Starr), who offers James proof that there's intelligent life outside the Ivies. Lisa P (Margarita Levieva) is the essence of a mid-'80s goddess, all lip gloss, tight high-waisted pants and fluffy hair. An older, married handyman named Connell (Ryan Reynolds) flirts with every female employee, including the smart, sullen one James likes, Em (Twilight's Kristen Stewart, whose grins are seldom but feel like sunshine in an Alaskan winter). Connell is James' polar opposite, a heel who relishes being a big fish in a small pond. When he first walks through the theme park, Mottola shifts into slow motion, the better to capture Connell's easy sexuality. "This is the way I roll," Connell seems to be saying, but there's a nakedness in his eyes that suggests he too is vulnerable.
With Superbad and Daytrippers, Mottola worked within the confines of a single day to great effect. Adventureland presents the bigger narrative challenge. He wants us to feel the sticky heat of summer days and the humming thrill of the nights, but he's required to move things along, plotwise. To this end, he's made poor James a virgin who is eager to be otherwise, allowing romance to lend shape to the summer. Will he find love with Em? Or the practically mythical Lisa P? (The fact that she is not Lisa, not Lisa Peters, but Lisa P, is perhaps the movie's most exquisitely right touch.) But which girl, if any, James ends up with feels immaterial. Ultimately the movie is less interesting as a romance than as a meditation on the commonality of uncertainty. Whenever it taps into the bittersweetness of those moments, it soars.