Greg Mottola’s beguiling new film Adventureland resonates from a place of personal nostalgia, in this case the pivotal Summer of 1987 for James (Jesse Eisenberg) who reluctantly takes a job at a local amusement park to help pay for graduate school. A canceled trip to Europe causes him to return home with his “pragmatic” parents, watching slowly as his ideal vacation with yuppie friends quickly morphs into a never-ending lounge with the locals of Pittsburgh. During his time at Adventureland, James comes in contact with an assortment of characters, all riffs of stereotypes from other films, yet each containing a sense of true uncertainty that parallels his own. The result is a striking array of people running fruitlessly across life’s quick sand aiming to stay afloat, hoping to keep the status quo alive.
In aesthetic terms, the collective fabric of the amusement park adds up to a sublime sense of space, a monotonous playground of flashing lights, loud screams, and droning pop music populated with aching souls. Yet Mottola respects the place and the role it plays in his hero’s existence, a stepping stone of insecurity and mindless fluff needed to discover how little James knows about life. Simultaneously indicating a devout passion for and conflict with remembering feelings of youth, Adventureland is torn between tones; best as a melancholy coming of age film and worst during its conventional moments of comedy and plotting. However, Mottola’s honest dialogue and characters makes for a slyly moving experience, where the passage of time plays the biggest trick of all. Before long, the Summer you dreaded so much is over, and it ended up being pretty revelatory.