From The New York Times:
Coming of Age on the Midway
April 3, 2009
It’s the summer of 1987. The stock market crash is a few months off, but for James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) things have already taken a recessionary turn. His father (Jack Gilpin), a wilted, weak-chinned alcoholic, has been demoted, and the resulting financial pinch puts the kibosh on James’s rather modest postcollegiate dream of a summer in Europe followed by graduate school at Columbia. (His sights were set on journalism school, and given what his midcareer, 40-something self would be facing two decades later, it’s probably just as well he didn’t go.)
Anyway, like so many other members of a generation unfairly stigmatized at the time as slackers, James moves back in with Dad and Mom (Wendie Malick), who live in standard suburban discomfort in western Pennsylvania. Finding that a B.A. in comparative literature qualifies him for fairly little in the way of paid work, James takes a position manning the midway games at Adventureland, a sad little amusement park that serves as the employer of last resort for the area’s misfit young.
Apart from a certain gangly, nerdy charm — Mr. Eisenberg’s stock in trade, already evident in “Roger Dodger” and “The Squid and the Whale” — James doesn’t have much in the way of assets: his virginity, a bag of joints (courtesy of a preppy college pal) and a bookish naïveté, all of which you can be sure he will be rid of by the time “Adventureland” is over.
The film, written and directed by Greg Mottola (“The Daytrippers,” “Superbad”), plants its flag in thoroughly explored territory, but that familiarity turns out to be integral to its loose and scruffy appeal. Somehow the story of a young man’s coming of age never gets old, at least when it is told with the kind of sweetness and intelligence “Adventureland” displays.
The engine that drives most film comedy these days is the male flight from maturity. John Updike famously observed that an American man is “a failed boy.” The endless parade of movies that bear the name or show the influence of Judd Apatow (a producer of “Superbad”) blunts the tragic implication of that claim by insisting that a man is a successful boy, who gets to keep his toys and his pals even as he acquires the benefits and obligations of heterosexual monogamy. The humor in these comedies is based on various forms of sexual unease, in particular a jokey, half-panicky homoeroticism complemented by a semiterrified fascination with those oddly shaped, emotionally inscrutable creatures known as women.
The cast of “Adventureland” includes a few members of the Apatow stock company (notably Bill Hader as one of the park’s owners and Martin Starr as a nebbishy colleague of James’s with a fondness for Gogol). But in spite of this family resemblance, Mr. Mottola’s film is a relatively sober and cerebral affair, more akin to Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” than to “Knocked Up” or “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
It’s not just that James is an intellectual with a literary bent that suggests a latter-day Woody Allen or Philip Roth hero. It’s more that his innocence expresses itself less as an anxious mystification of women and sex than as a romantic idealization of (gulp) love.
No sooner has James started at Adventureland than he is smitten — as what literature major worth his Rilke would not be? — with Em, a moody, leggy N.Y.U. student played by Kristen Stewart. Em is secretly involved with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), an older, married maintenance man who impresses his younger co-workers, male and female alike, with transparently bogus tales of hobnobbing with famous musicians. “Did you know he jammed with Lou Reed?” Back in the ’80s, wherever you went, there was always some guy hanging around who had jammed with Lou Reed, even if Lou Reed never was much for jamming.
But the drop of Mr. Reed’s name allows “Adventureland” to make heartfelt use of “Satellite of Love,” one of his loveliest songs and part of a soundtrack that runs the gamut of more or less period-appropriate sounds, from the sublimity of Hüsker Dü to the ridiculousness of a bar band covering Foreigner. Otherwise Mr. Mottola is careful not to fetishize or lampoon the 1980s with silly hairdos or too-obvious topical references.
Nor does he lean too heavily on the central romantic plot, allowing the film, true to its season of idleness and drift, to meander from one thing to another. There is some exemplary silliness from Mr. Hader and the peerless Kristen Wiig, who plays his character’s wife and business partner, but the jokes tend to be sly rather than broad, and Mr. Mottola never sacrifices tenderness of feeling for a cheap laugh. Minor characters who might have been mean, tossed-off caricatures — like the theme-park bombshell known as Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) — are endowed with the capacity to change and surprise, almost as if they were the protagonists of their own movies.
“Adventureland” sometimes seems to lose track of just which movie it is, and its sprawling narrative encompasses some soft spots and patches of inconsistency. The worst of these comes near the end, with a failure of compassion on James’s part that seems to owe more to the demands of the plot than the logic of the character. And at times Mr. Mottola lays on the suburban adolescent malaise with too heavy a hand.
Over all, though, the smart, slightly depressive vibe feels just right — for James’s era and for our own as well. The path to adulthood is lined with disappointment, but for a young man with an open heart and a measure of self-confidence, to say nothing of a degree in comp lit, things will most likely be O.K.