Greg Mottola segued from The Daytrippers, his quiet, sharply observed comedy about family and fidelity, to Superbad, 2007's Judd Apatow-chaperoned take on adolescence, friendship, sex, and that gawky McLovin with the fake ID.
Adventureland, Mottola's third feature, mixes the intimate, indie vibe of Daytrippers with the absurdist screwball streak of Superbad, to winning effect. Semiautobiographical and set in Pittsburgh in 1987, the coming-of-age comedy tracks the director's alter ego, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, the older brother from The Squid and the Whale), over the course of a summer between college and grad school. When his plans for a European trip are scuttled (his parents are broke), James has to look for a job - and finds one, working for minimum wage at a rundown amusement park.
Bad corn dogs, puking patrons, a weirdo boss (Bill Hader), and five-minute bathroom breaks - it's going to be a long, hot summer. But then James meets Em (Kristen Stewart), a bored, bright coworker. Inexplicably to James, who went through four years at Oberlin and is still a virgin, Em seems interested in him. But there are complications - mainly, she's having an affair with Mike, the park's maintenance guy (Ryan Reynolds). A musician who fronts a cover band in local bars, Mike also happens to be married.
Adventureland boasts a cool sound track of Reagan-era pop (Big Star, Lou Reed, the New York Dolls, the Cure, Crowded House) and a low-key stoner sensibility - James is a bit of a pothead. There are the usual mortified male mishaps (awkward dates, painful humiliation) and an obnoxious childhood friend who expresses himself by punching James in the groin, but Adventureland offers more than that: a glimpse into blossoming adulthood, and a love story in which honesty and trust might get a chance to triumph over hurt and deception.
Eisenberg's James, impossibly earnest, is awkward and ingratiating, and it's fun to watch him become emboldened as he falls for Em. Stewart shot Adventureland before she made that little vampire romance thing (um, what's it called, Twilight?). Her character here is older and more cynical, but that same intelligence is evident in the way the actress holds the camera and lets us see her character thinking, and feeling.
Martin Starr has a nice turn as a pipe-smoking, Gogol-quoting nerd who's too smart to be working at Adventureland, but is nonetheless. It's one of those places, and one of those jobs, where you just get stuck - until you get unstuck, and move on with your life. You're not necessarily wiser for the experience, but not sorry you had it, either.