Nestled among the musty industrial complexes of Farmingdale, New York, the actual Adventureland doesn’t so much glitter with whimsy as it pulses dully in the summer heat. I grew up less than a mile away from its creaky gates and was aware of its overt air of decay from young childhood. It’s an amusement park, replete with moles to be whacked and a few modest roller coasters—but it’s also a place which seems to be slowly rumbling to a pathetic halt. Even toddlers detect a distinct lack of magic and often refuse to squeal in delight, leaving the baby bumper cars eerily silent.
This is Adventureland as I remember it from countless Long Island summers. Director Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland,” based upon the real park, manages to convey that tedium without the nihilistic morbidity. It’s just as well, as I might have run screaming from the theater if it hadn’t, plagued by creepy memories. Mottola, the master behind “Superbad,” uses this odd milieu to play to his strength, telling a story of adolescent love and self-discovery with unique wit and dignity. The setting is dead, but the characters are very much alive and engaged beneath their self-imposed teenage indifference.
Take James (Jesse Eisenberg), our reluctant hero: he is snookered into taking a job at Adventureland and finds himself trapped in a vacuum of boredom. The rides are crusty and poorly manned, the customers are shrill and overbearing, and most of the other employees are slack-jawed youths who have already resigned themselves to this peculiar hell. James, a contemplative young man, struggles daily to find a nugget of fake enthusiasm within himself; he soon becomes attracted to his enigmatic coworker, Em (Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame). Utilizing her usual near-stoned sense of calm, Stewart imbues Em with surprising sensitivity. I had previously begrudged her the wasted two hours I spent watching “Twilight”; but with this character, she pays back her debt to moviegoers in full.
The rest of the cast is passable, but not strong. Poor Ryan Reynolds’s comedic gifts are squandered in a standard, wooden role as the park maintenance man. The rest of the employees are odd but unmemorable, sarcastic but rarely clever. The notable exceptions are Kristen Wiig, of “Saturday Night Live,” and Bill Hader as the married owners of Adventureland, who are not so much vessels for one-liners as veritable fountains of sharp humor. The film critic Roger Ebert is fond of pointing out the “what” versus the “why” of comedy: a film is not funny because characters use or do funny things—it’s funny because the characters have serious reasons for their actions, and those actions lead to funny situations. Both Hader and Wiig are masters of psychological investment, able to garner genuine laughter without forcing themselves upon the story in their wackiness.
The majority of the actual plot revolves around James’s friends, but the budding romance between Em and him is profoundly more fascinating. The two teens do credit to their age bracket, exposing to each other their complex wells of emotion and intellectual quickness in careful, shy increments. It is immeasurably pleasing to see characters under 20 allowed inner conflicts, acuity, and depth of character. “Adventureland” is softer and more reflective than Mottola’s other work, but just as worthy for many accolades for “Superbad.” He misses the desolation of the real Adventureland—I’m remembering my birthday party there in 1999 and shuddering—and instead ends up with a quiet, warm achievement.