Flashing back to the ’80s, Adventureland sets up tension between Falco and Lou Reed to convey the crossroads facing its young heroes. The charming coming-of-age comedy primarily takes place at Pittsburgh’s seedy Adventureland amusement park, where “Rock Me Amadeus” plays incessantly on loudspeakers like a form of psychological warfare. For the park’s overeducated, underemployed summer workers, Lou Reed tunes such as “Satellite of Love” soothe jangled nerves after long shifts of handing out stuffed pandas and cleaning up vomit.
Adventureland’s soundtrack offers more than a nostalgic hit parade. It also provides a metaphor for the decisions young people make for themselves, as well as the choices forced upon them. No matter how much you like Lou Reed, in each life, some Falco must fall.
At first, Adventureland feints toward the formula of horny youth comedies like American Pie. Boyish James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) reveals he’s still a virgin, despite recently graduating from college. Getting deflowered would be ample motivation for a teen sex flick, but James pursues more cerebral ambitions. He wants to spend the summer in Europe with a rich pal before attending Columbia graduate school. When his downwardly mobile father (Jack Gilpin) is demoted, however, his parents close their wallets, forcing James to find a summer job.
As the kind of Renaissance studies major who uses the phrase “per se” in casual conversation, James proves completely unqualified for real work. His childhood friend turned grown-up annoyance Frigo (Matt Bush as the Stiffler character) gets him a job at Adventureland, where James discovers a peculiar pecking order. The workers who operate the tilt-a-whirl and other rides enjoy higher status than those who run the ring-toss games like James and kindred spirit Joel (Martin Starr of “Freaks and Geeks” and Knocked Up).
Writer/director Greg Mottola provides broad jokes to “Saturday Night Live’s” Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the park’s dim owners, who cut corners with cheap prizes and cheaper junk food. Adventureland more carefully delineates between the classes of park workers. Starr hilariously but poignantly captures Joel’s social awkwardness as a Russian literature major who smokes a ridiculous pipe for relaxation. Gorgeous Lisa P (Margerita Levieva) qualifies as the park sex symbol, but her willingness to date James suggests that social barriers prove less rigid than high school (or high school movies) would have you believe. Handyman/musician Connell (Ryan Reynolds) exudes confidence as the resident "cool guy," but friendship with him turns out to be a one-way street.
James almost immediately begins carrying a torch for fellow games manager Em (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart), who spars with her social-climbing stepmother and feels stuck in a depressing, illicit love affair. Stewart’s under-emoting keeps Em from beguiling the audience, but her remote quality serves the story. Much of Adventureland hinges on whether the two young souls will make a connection, or if James’ idealized perspective and Em’s low self-esteem will keep them apart. At one point she tells him, “You don’t owe me anything” and he replies with an endearing Michael Cera-style stammer, “But I want to owe you things.”
Adventureland draws a subtle distinction between the social lubrication of marijuana vs. alcohol. A friend’s gift bag of joints bestows unexpected prestige on James as the park’s “weed guy,” and getting high frequently brings down defenses between peers, strangers and would-be lovers. Booze, however, carries a self-destructive potential that trips up both Em and James at separate times. James’ father clearly uses alcohol as a crutch, even though it may also be a cause of his decline.
Mottola previously directed the hit Superbad, and Adventureland, while funny, relies less on laughs or comedic situations. Rather than look back on 1987 through rose-colored Ray-Bans, Mottola frequently sets a melancholy tone that suggests those fateful summers we remember fondly now weren’t as fun to experience at the time.
At one point, two characters get to know each other while sharing a joint in broken bumper cars, with Pittsburgh’s industrial hills in the background. By acknowledging the difficulty of taking on mature responsibilities, Adventureland could have the alternative title Adultland, as if growing up were the most challenging attraction at the park: You must be this big to ride this ride.