On the surface, “Adventureland,” director Greg Mottola’s follow-up to his hit “Superbad,” looks like another good-time, raunchy romp. And it certainly has healthy amounts of partying and pranks to go along with its gross-out gags.
The 1987 amusement-park setting also allows Mottola to revel in dead-on period kitsch, from acid-washed jeans and teased-up bangs to the absurdly annoying strains of Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus,” which repeatedly blares over the loud speakers. (He wrote the script based on his own experiences working at a Long Island theme park while at Columbia University in the late’80s; two decades later, he’s clearly still traumatized, and understandably so.)
But “Adventureland” has more on its mind — and its heart — than that, as its college-age characters struggle to figure out who they are and what they want in a time of flux.
Mottola seems to be aiming for that John Hughes style of comedy: the kind that starts out with light laughs but ends up in analytical angst. He doesn’t always find the right tone in trying to cover such varied terrain, but you have to admire him for trying inject some substance into what can be a predictably mindless genre.
Standing in as the Mottola figure is Jesse Eisenberg as recent college graduate James Brennan, who had been planning on a summer in Europe before heading to grad school. Instead, he ends up moving back home to Pittsburgh to live with his parents and working at the thoroughly mediocre Adventureland theme park.
His job in the games department (he would have preferred operating the rides) requires him to act enthusiastic about peddling schlocky prizes, although he learns pretty quickly that screwing with the clientele is a favorite activity of the park’s veteran employees. This is also a chief source of laughs in the early going, and it gives the film a buoyant energy until it turns heavier and darker. (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are underused as the overzealous married couple who run the place.)
Eisenberg plays the same awkward but quick-witted underdog we’ve seen in previous films like “The Squid and the Whale,” but at least that guy is brainy and likable. He shares amusing intellectual banter with Martin Starr as Joel, the pipe-smoking Russian literature expert, as well as a ridiculous romance with Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the hottest girl at the park.
Kristen Stewart, meanwhile, merely has her typical sullen expression and low-key delivery as Em, the well-off NYU student who’s only working at Adventureland to get away from her family. What James sees in her, besides her impeccable taste in music, is a mystery. But one of the realistic touches in Mottola’s film is the importance of poignant tunes in its characters’ lives, with a soundtrack that features The Replacements, Husker Du and Lou Reed.
Ryan Reynolds refreshingly co-stars as a bad guy, for once: a married musician who has trysts with his girlfriends in the basement of his mother’s house. But Mottola seems more comfortable with the comedy than he does with the sort of drama that Reynolds’ character introduces; such moments weigh down the film rather than provide it with gravitas.
It’s like he’s chosen the right song, but it just isn’t always in tune.