From the Replacements song playing during the opening credits to the tasteful choice of the acoustic version of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Taste of Cindy” and instrumental soundtrack numbers by Yo La Tengo, writer/director Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is a mash note to a 1980s era of not-quite-adulthood. Sure, Ronald Reagan may be in the White House, but the 40-something Mottola has scored his coming-of-age tale with signposts from the salad years of America’s musical underground, a time before descriptors such as “college rock” and “indie” became mere synonyms for “middle-class, white, and boring.” And, sadly, it’s just as bittersweet as those movies about Baby Boomer nostalgia for lost youth.
Fortunately, Adventureland is inoffensively romantic about its time period. Bookish, neurotic James Brennan (Eisenberg) has just graduated from college in the spring of 1987 and is excited about his summer tour of Europe with a friend before heading to journalism graduate school when his parents (Gilpin and Malick) inform him that because of his father’s recent work problems, they not only don’t have the money to give him for his trip, but he’ll need to come home to Pittsburgh over the summer and work to pull off grad school. Dreams unfulfilled and graduating unskilled, James takes the only job he can get: as a low-level midway-games employee at the titular amusement park.
James is resigned to his summer’s fate and he finds an ally in self-loathing in fellow games grunt Joel (Martin Starr, solid as always). It’s fellow park employee Em Lewin (Stewart), though, that really wakes James from his boring summer. She’s the tomboyish but unconventionally attractive young woman with the Hüsker Dü tape and the car, who actually listens to his future plans. Life isn’t all peachy for this young woman, whose modestly well-heeled father married a woman Em can’t stand after her mother’s death, and Stewart wisely underplays Em’s internal sadness and frustrations. But it takes James the entire movie to see beyond her nice home and easy-going manner to what might be going on inside her head. That Mottola is at all interested in his flawed characters’ interior life and living conditions is Adventureland’s best asset.
— Bret McCabe