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Greg Mottola is hardly a household name, even to fans of 2007’s Superbad—the comedy that Seth Rogen co-wrote, Michael Cera and Jonah Hill broke out in, and, uh, Judd Apatow directed, right? Nope, that was Mottola, and though trailers for his new film, Adventureland, are pushing its coming-of-age story as Superbad’s tonal cousin, the film’s a bit more thoughtful than that. It’s melancholy and wry—add in a ubiquitous ’80s soundtrack, and Adventureland feels a lot like Mottola’s Almost Famous.
Not that the writer-director doesn’t punctuate the Cameron Crowe vibe of his semi-autobiographical script with boner and ball jokes. (A “double-sack punch” is a cheap yet inexplicably entertaining running gag.) One imagines Mottola’s stand-in is James (The Squid and the Whale’s Jesse Eisenberg), a college grad who wants to continue his studies in journalism—but not before backpacking to Europe with a friend. James’ parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) tell him that they can no longer afford to fund his vacation, though, and that he’ll have to spend the summer of ’87 working instead. So armed with a degree but not a lick of job experience, James ends up at a beat amusement park called Adventureland, cleaning up vomit and arguing about stuffed animals as he haplessly mans the games.
Mercifully, James is surrounded by like-minded sad sacks, as well as the gum-smacking teen caricatures that such nerds feel both intimidated by and superior to. There’s Joel (Martin Starr), the Russian lit./Slavic languages major with Coke-bottle glasses who responds to a question about his career track with: “Cab driver, marijuana dealer…the world is my oyster!” On the opposite end of the spectrum is James’ literally ball-busting best friend, Frigo (Matt Bush), and Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the park’s legendary lace-and-Aqua Net hottie over whom all the guys drool.
And somewhere in between is Em (Kristen Stewart—you might know her from Twilight), whom James immediately falls for. Em is both awkward and beautiful, too pale and quiet for the popular girls and too complex for boys her own age. She’s attractive to older guys, though, particularly Mike (an appealingly low-key Ryan Reynolds), Adventureland’s maintenance man who’s married and clearly unhappy as he uses Em for sex and tries to impress people with lies about having jammed with Lou Reed. So while James pines for her, she aches for Mike, wanting more from him but increasingly believing she’s not deserving of anything better.
Whereas Superbad may have been riotously funny, Adventureland’s strength is its truth. It probably helps that Mottola grew up in the Me Decade—he includes Poison videos and a repeated assault of “Rock Me Amadeus” for maximum flashbacks—but anyone who’s suffered through a McJob and its may-as-well-be-high-school cliques will appreciate the script’s humor and heartaches. The film deftly captures the sadness of a summer’s passing (a brief scene involving fireworks hits that familiar it’s July 4th already? chord) as well as one’s adolescence: Watching James and Em drink in an actual bar and talk seriously about sex, you’re reminded that despite the actors’ looks, this is not a teen comedy—yet, wow, how young college students still are, despite their fledgling independence. It’s a sweet time, and Adventureland is a sweet movie, its emotion punctuated by dick jokes instead of the other way around.