Set a mere two decades ago, Greg Mottola's Adventureland seems as if it could be taking place on a distant planet, less for the leg warmers and knee socks clinging to lower extremities than for the legions of pre-Internet Luddites who gather, like the apes at the start of 2001, to participate in those analog rituals known as ski ball and Whac-a-Mole. Drawn from Mottola's experiences working at a ramshackle suburban amusement park, Adventureland feels at once personal and generational, a Proustian madeleine for anyone who rode the roller coaster of post-adolescence while Iran-Contra was in prime time and Wang Chung was on the radio — which, I suppose, makes it more like a Proustian Astro Pop.
The year is 1987, and the place is the titular, mom-and-pop Pittsburgh fun zone, where a gaggle of college students and recent grads languidly passes the summer while planning for bigger lives in bigger cities. Self-serious aspiring travel writer James (Jesse Eisenberg) was supposed to be seeing the world, but Reaganomics trickled down to his newly demoted father, putting the kibosh on Europe (and possibly Columbia journalism school) and forcing James into the only summer job he could find. Even then, he's quickly pegged by Adventureland's proprietors (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) as a "games" guy — which, in the park's comical caste system, is the domain of intellectuals, introverts, and anyone else deemed unworthy of those bronzed gods and goddesses known as ride operators. Floating above all of this is maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds) — slightly older than the rest, with a carefully honed aura of Top Gun chic, a self-perpetuating legend that he once jammed with Lou Reed and a reputation, despite the wedding band on his finger, of being the park's resident Lothario.
James learns the Adventureland ropes from Joel (Martin Starr), the pipe-smoking, Plato-quoting games guru who, in a hilariously misguided romantic overture, gives a chaste Catholic coworker a copy of Nikolai Gogol's The Overcoat as a token of his affection, insisting on the tormented Russian author's merits even after enduring her rejection. James, meanwhile, takes a more conventional approach to his courtship of arcade worker Em (Kristen Stewart), despite telling her upfront that he's a 22-year-old virgin and later borrowing a few too many moves from his main man Connell's playbook. Thus, games guy meets games girl, gradually comes into a new self-confidence, nearly blows the good thing he has by succumbing to the temptations of a gum-chewing, bra-strap-baring rides vixen, and tries to put things right again only to discover that betrayal is a two-way street.
Undeniably, Adventureland traffics in certain perhaps inevitable clichés that have attended teen and 20-something relationship movies since time (or at least John Hughes) immemorial. But, as he previously demonstrated in 2007's Superbad, Mottola cuts so swiftly to the underlying truth of those clichés — to the euphoria and pain of youthful rites of passage — that he leaves most other movies on the subject looking especially plastic and shallow. In its mellower, more melancholic tone, however, Adventureland even more strongly recalls Mottola's superb, Slamdance-winning debut, The Daytrippers (1996), which followed a bickering Long Island family on a darkly farcical car ride into Manhattan.
The constant in Mottola's work is his marvelous hand with actors, inspiring them to invest the most minor or familiar of characters with a nuanced inner life that goes beyond what's on the page. In Adventureland, that's particularly true of Stewart, who taps into an emotional reservoir that her role in the teen vampire behemoth Twilight neither demanded nor revealed, giving Em the quiet sadness of someone who, in her early 20s, has already suffered a lifetime's worth of disappointments. So too does the consistently resourceful, intelligent Reynolds manage, in a few fleeting appearances, to make an almost tragic figure out of his potentially sleazy, slacker Don Juan. Like all of the ostensible adults in the film — from Em's ineffectual father and status-seeking stepmother to Hader and Wiig's Adventureland lifers — Connell may be older, but he isn't necessarily any wiser about the peculiar alchemy of finding one's place in the world.
By the standards of Mottola's previous films, both of which unfolded over the course of a single day, the season-spanning Adventureland is practically an epic, but one in which Mottola sacrifices none of his romantic poet's affection for the fleeting, ephemeral moment. Here, no detail is too small to be glazed with the amber of memory, least of all whatever happened to be playing on the radio (or MTV) when you made out with a girl, got your heart broken, or forgave a friend. To that end, Mottola and music supervisor Tracy McKnight have mined their collective unconscious for more than 40 period songs that capture the '80s in all its musical permutations — hair metal (Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again"), new-wave pop (Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus"), punk (New York Dolls' "Looking for a Kiss"), and everything else we had no choice but to listen to before iPods let us hyperpersonalize the soundtracks of our lives. I've seen Mottola's movie twice, and both times, it has inspired feelings of joy, sadness, and a profound yearning for the unrecoverable past. Maybe I'm projecting too much false nostalgia onto this modest but poignant Gen-X touchstone, if not the '80s themselves. Or maybe you just had to be there.