Director’s experience puts fun in ‘Adventureland’

  • By Robert Horton, Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, April 2, 2009 6:30pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

An attitude adjustment is in store for new college grad James: Expecting to travel through Europe for the summer, his financially challenged family has just informed him he’ll be working instead. Best available job: tending the midway at an amusement park.

A letdown? Yes, but the summer of ‘87 will be a memorable one, otherwise writer-director Greg Mottola wouldn’t have devoted his new movie “Adventureland” to it.

This autobiographical comedy from the director of “Superbad” covers well worn ground, with various youthful joys and disillusionments spread out against a collection of vintage songs.

The reason it plays well is the appealing cast and the tang of lived-in experience. Mottola really did work at a Long Island amusement part called Adventureland in the late 1980s, and you sense that somebody’s direct memories are at play here.

James is played by Jesse Eisenberg, a kid with frizzed-out hair and a sincere, quizzical manner (he was the older son in “The Squid and the Whale”). James is stuck setting up the ring-toss booth and calling out the action for the mechanical horse race, as the sound system blares out “Rock Me Amadeus” for the 20th time that day.

Plus there’s love. Duh.

Sure, every guy on the midway moons over the exotic Lisa P. (a perfect moniker), played by Margarita Levieva, but James also notices the quieter allure of Em (Kristen Stewart, late of “Twilight”), a deadpan co-worker.

There’s a requisite nerd (Martin Starr), a couple of insufferable carnival “lifers” (“Saturday Night Live” stalwarts Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) and one park janitor whose considerable coolness factor amongst the other workers rests on the rumor that he once gigged with Lou Reed.

He’s played by Ryan Reynolds, who deftly navigates the line between decency and a vaguely creepy feeling that this dude, who’s 10 years older than anybody else there, ought to have moved on with his life by now. In short, he’s got a hint of Wooderson from “Dazed and Confused” about him.

It’s such a different kind of movie from “Superbad” that it’s pointless to compare them. So we will anyway. “Adventureland” doesn’t have the uproarious highs of Mottola’s previous comedy, but it shares the genial attitude and relaxed pace of that film.

And in the summer-night talks between the two possible lovers, Eisenberg and Stewart capture a rare, unforced intimacy.

We don’t feel like we’re watching the cure for cancer here, just a little affection between two decent, eccentric people in a summer before things have really started for them. That’s an acceptable trade-off for the belly laughs of “Superbad.”

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