What clouds the mind more firmly — and, perhaps, more sweetly — than nostalgia? In the '80s-set comedy Adventureland, writer-director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad) doesn't quite fall into the numb fog of remembrance to the degree you might expect, and while it doesn't hit below the belt, it doesn't pull many punches, either. James Brennan (Jesse Eisneberg) is a recent college graduate who's been thrown a curve by life. In the mid-'80s, James has his plans for a summer European tour before grad school dashed by his dad's recent transfer at work — and, worse, grad school itself may not be doable unless James can make some money. Of course, a degree in comparative literature doesn’t really translate to the summer job market (as James notes "I'm not even qualified for manual labor. …"), and soon James finds himself running a games booth at Adventureland, the local funfair that gives James a crash course in the real world.
Mottola's looks at the present-day in films like The Daytrippers and Superbad have occasionally had that bright, squinty, so-true-it-hurts edge, but Adventureland, looking through the misty, water-colored memories of the way we were, has a gentler feel to it. Note 'gentler' and not necessarily 'gentle'; as James enters the social sphere of Adventureland, he meets co-workers like Em (Kristen Stewart), a bohemian beauty adrift in the bottle-toss booth and Joel (Martin Starr), a sneering intellectual given to judging the world as he peers over the bowl of his perfectly pretentious pipe, and Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the handyman who can fix anything but, it seems, his mistakes.
Mottola himself worked at a similar park in 1985, and his eye and ear for the period are both superbly honed. The fashion choices are evocative without being fake, and the music is pitch-perfect; the film begins and ends with The Replacements and stops everywhere in-between from Falco to The Velvet Underground and Crowded House. None of this ever feels forced, and it's a credit to Mottola's direction that the moments where things seem a little too perfectly crafted are matched by relaxed, calmer moments where the actual characters and the situations speak for themselves. Mottola explains in the excellent making-of featurette on the DVD that "we didn't want to make a film that was one long joke at the expense of the '80s, " and he never does, even as you're laughing at the occasional acid-wash and neon-leopard-print outfit that comes on-screen.
The actors are all great, too. Eisenberg plays James like the adolescent version of a Woody Allen character — the neurotic everyman — and he has a way of turning his stutters and stammers into jazz riffs made of pauses and pitfalls. Stewart trns what could have been the thankless role of 'the girl' into a real and rich character instead of a character. And the supporting cast — including Bill Hader as the socks-and-shorts, mustache-wearing manager, clueless and caring (at one point, when James is screwing up running one of the games, Hader asks Eisenberg "You doing pot? You drinking drugs?") — is also excellent.
Adventureland includes three deleted scenes and full commentary from Mottola and Eisenberg; the commentary track is funny and relaxed, as the writer-director and his surrogate chat about the film, but it's also informative and insightful (even though, early on, Mottola says "You're not getting Martin Scorsese-level insight into this movie" before doing a dead-on Scorsese imitation). Despite all their protestations to the contrary, Eisenberg and Mottola are good people to listen to for 107 minutes. Adventureland is about the way your first, worst job can often do more to define you than your later, better-suited professional endeavors, and how growing up isn't about not making mistakes but rather about making them, learning from them and moving on. Adventureland hits a hard-to-define sweet-spot few movies get; it's wistful and warm yet funny and fast, and while it may play better for those who survived the Reagan years than it does for those who didn't live through that time, it's still a great demonstration of the surprising and somehow hopeful fact that minimum wages can often lead to maximum possibilities.