To college students graduating into the nightmare of the current job market, the floating, companionable uncertainty of “Adventureland” must look very agreeable. Greg Mottola’s gentle comedy is set mostly in a Pittsburgh amusement park during the summer of 1987. The hero, James (Jesse Eisenberg), was expecting to spend the season traveling around Europe. But money troubles at home make it impossible for his parents (hangdog Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick, with her bruised brightness) to finance the trip they’ve promised him. Even his place at Columbia Journalism School in the fall is uncertain.
Mottola, whose last film was the mostly marvelous teen comedy “Superbad,” has a knack for capturing the way time stretches out in post-college limbo, and for the camaraderie to be found in lousy summer jobs, the sense that you and your coworkers are all in this bitch together. James befriends Joel (Martin Starr), a lanky, awkward student whose specialty is Russian lit but whose eyeglasses might have belonged to James Joyce, and Connell (Ryan Reynolds) a would-be musician who works as the park’s maintenance man when he’s not talking up his plans of moving to L.A. or pursuing the young girl who’ll be his summer affair.
Mottola is too compassionate a director to deride his characters for their pretensions and failings. Reynolds, who has always seemed the definition of callow, here shows an adult awareness in his baby features. And Starr’s Joel is such a fundamentally decent guy that he achieves a kind of gangling dignity. Mottola is kind, too, to Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the park’s married managers, such a pair of perfectly matched oddballs that you can imagine them happily finishing each other’s sentences when they’re 80. And his benevolence extends to the resident hottie (Margarita Levieva) — you believe her when she asks James to take her out because she’d like to be with a nice guy for a change. And when she doesn’t get one of James’ references, Mottola is smart enough to put the joke on the guy showing off his book collection rather than the girl asking, huh?
Skinny and shaggy-haired, and with a nose that might make him Paul Westerberg’s runt brother, James is the kind of terribly self-conscious guy who seems to have formed his ideas of what girls find charming from Woody Allen movies. He’s a post-feminist kid who sees male behavior divided into two possibilities: his own kind of shambling sincerity (he insists on telling girls he’s just had his heart broken, or that he’s a virgin) or the kind of macho cool that he can’t affect and which repulses him.
In some basic way, we feel less for James than we do for Kristin Stewart as Em, the co-worker whose courtship dance with James provides the heart of the movie. Based on “Adventureland” and “Twilight,” Stewart might not have a huge range, but there’s something very satisfying about the tough fuck-you set of her features here. Because she suffers no fools elsewhere, we can be sure that Em’s tenderness towards James is genuine. (Mottola sticks Stewart with one bummer of a scene in which she publicly humiliates her stepmother. It’s too cruel: for a moment the movie veers into the idiot “grown-ups suck” ethos of John Hughes movies.) Stewart makes Em the kind of cool girl you’re happy to have in your gang.
“Adventureland” may be a letdown to the people looking for Mottola to repeat the raunchy boisterousness of “Superbad.” At times, it could use some of that dirt. I’ve already heard the quiet, observational tone of “Adventureland” used to deride “Superbad” as just another dumb teen-boy comedy. That isn’t just a drag — it suggests the kind of insularity “Adventureland” finally escapes.
There’s integrity in the way Mottola stays true to James’ tentative rhythms. But Eisenberg is such a recessive presence that the movie lacks dramatic tension. Eisenberg doesn’t have a false moment, and by the end of the movie, you’re on James’ side. But there’s a measure of perversity in staying true to a character who makes you want to shake him for so long, particularly because Mottola has succeeded in making the amusement park such an accepting place that the logical thing would be for James to flower. No movie I know has ever really gotten the particular way that the barriers of class and cliques fall down after high school and college. (The irony in this one is that the Reagan years are throwing those barriers back up stronger than ever.) Thrown together at Adventureland, this crew is happy hanging out after work grousing and drinking, or sneaking in pot cookies during a shift, or listening to the bands they feel cool for knowing. (It’s the time of The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, but James and Em have caught on to The Velvet Underground and Big Star, as well.)
What carries “Adventureland” beyond its frustrating hero is that it has the sweet, stoned good-naturedness of a quotidian idyll. Mottola is smart enough not to depict the world waiting beyond the park as all phoniness and corruption. This is what the mumblecore kids might be capable of if they had any notion of making movies for an audience.