‘Adventureland’

Life: It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure. Especially when you’re stuck in "Adventureland."

But don’t be fooled by "Adventureland’s" advertising campaign, which makes it look like the second coming of "Superbad."

Yes, Greg Mottola directed both movies. Both feature projectile vomiting, copious cannabis use, raging hormones and other teen-movie trademarks.

But in "Adventureland," they’re not the whole meal deal. They’re merely condiments, there to spice up a more substantial cinematic repast.

It’s made from familiar ingredients, to be sure — the main course being an all-time favorite, the endless and inescapable trauma of coming of age.

Yet, when it’s well prepared, as it is in "Adventureland," it still proves a satisfying experience.

For those of us in the audience, anyway.

For "Adventureland" protagonist James Brennan, not so much.

It’s 1987, the twilight of the Reagan years, and James (played by "The Squid and the Whale’s" Jesse Eisenberg) has just discovered that, due to suddenly strained family finances, he won’t be spending his post-collegiate summer touring Europe with a rich classmate as planned.

Instead, he’s headed home to Pittsburgh and an awkward return to life under the same roof as his parents (Wendie Malick, Jack Gilpin), who just can’t help treating him like he’s still a teenager.

Try as he might, James can’t find any opportunities to act like an adult — at either the personal or professional level.

Which leaves Adventureland.

A local amusement park that’s been there since the dawn of time — and looks like it hasn’t been refurbished since — Adventureland looms as James’ last chance for a summer job — and, therefore, his only chance to earn money for grad school in New York.

It also might be his best chance to find a cure for his romantic problems — especially when he’s assigned to run midway games alongside Em Lewin ("Twilight’s" Kristen Stewart), a sardonic tomboy with more than a few issues of her own.

Em may be the most memorable character James encounters at Adventureland, but she’s hardly the only one.

From studious Joel (Martin Starr) to babelicious bombshell Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the park positively overflows with the quirky likes of Frigo (Matt Bush), an arrested-development case of alarming proportions. To say nothing of gung-ho owner Bobby ("Saturday Night Live’s" Bill Hader), his dim-bulb wife and colleague Paulette ("SNL" colleague Kristen Wiig) and hunky handyman Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), an aspiring rocker who, legend has it, once jammed with the even more legendary Lou Reed.

Mottola reportedly based "Adventureland’s" script on his own experiences at a Long Island amusement park of the same name. (In "Adventureland," Pittsburgh’s historic Kennywood plays the title role.)

And while the movie’s set in the late ’80s, with period-specific details to match — from the beat-up Plymouths and Chevys and AMC Pacers on the road to Falco’s ubiquitous "Rock Me Amadeus" booming from the park’s loudspeakers — much of "Adventureland" feels like a throwback to an earlier time.

In part, that’s because the movie’s Pennsylvania setting feels as though time has passed it by — not only Adventureland but the Rust Belt suburbs surrounding it.

The same applies to the movie’s in-transition characters — no longer teens, not yet full-fledged adults — who struggle, and fail, to fit in wherever they find themselves. If they can find themselves at all, that is.

As for finding each other, that’s a different struggle — an emotional one Mottola captures in painfully accurate yet ruefully affectionate detail, thanks to more than a little help from Eisenberg and Stewart.

Stewart continues a string of strong performances (that includes "Into the Wild" as well as "Twilight"), creating a character whose sharp edges (and sharp tongue) can’t quite disguise her soft heart.

And, as our guide through the "Adventureland" wilderness, Eisenberg’s James brings understated yet unmistakable humor to the hardly laughable subject of life’s mysteries, and miseries. He can’t help being smart and he can’t help being sensitive — and, as he eventually discovers, that’s not as much of a problem as he thinks.

He might have figured that out even if he had never set foot in Adventureland. But, as the movie demonstrates, he wouldn’t have had so much fun along the way.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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