Adventureland
Written and directed
by Greg Mottola.
Starring: Jessie Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader. Rated R.

It’s a strange time of year for the movies. We’re past the dumping ground of February and March, but the summer blockbusters have yet to rear their massive heads — pirated downloads of Wolverine aside. Right now we’re in that period where the movies are often decent,  not quite good enough to garner an awards push, but good enough to get you primed for the big show that starts in May. To that end, ’09 might end up being remembered as the year of the early ’80s coming-of-age movie, since at least three of them are currently set to make their way into theaters. You’ve got Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Lymelife with Alec Baldwin. And then there’s Adventureland — Greg Mottola’s Superbad follow-up — a charming little movie about the roller coaster ride we call growing up.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as James Brennan, playing what could reasonably be called the Michael Cera role. He’s a sweet, geeky, brainy college grad with big plans. (First, spend the summer of ‘83 touring Europe. Second, go to grad school.) But his parents’ finances hit the skids, derailing the first part of his plan and forcing him to take a summer job at Adventureland, a crappy, third-rate amusement park, in the hopes of attaining the second.

Sure, Adventureland sucks. And yeah, the couple that run it — Saturday Night Live cast members Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig — are off-kilter and out-of-touch. But in many ways it’s the perfect place for a young dude to spend the summer, because there are plenty of other young people doing exactly the same thing. There’s Joel (Martin Starr), the strange, lonely smart guy; and Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), the hot chick everyone’s got a thing for. There’s Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the cool maintenance man who’s always screwing around with younger girls; and most of all, there’s Em (Kristen Stewart of Twilight), an NYU student who, James hopes, just might be the ying to his yang.

Now, it’s hard to be in your early 20s, no matter what the decade. But it’s great to be in a situation where you’re leaving after the summer and everyone’s hormones are raging. Everyone has an angle and everyone has someone they’re trying to hook up with, and the only problem with this is the emotional baggage that accompanies it. The reason Adventureland works is that the emotions Mottola’s characters are feeling are real and familiar. Anyone who’s been that age knows exactly what it’s like when you’re looking for, and finding, love for the very first time. And if you’re yet to get there, well, those experiences are something to both look forward to and dread.

Eisenberg is disarmingly charming — he’s no Rico Suave, but he’s a nice enough guy, and he’s not terrible with the ladies, either. But, like everyone else in the movie, including his parents, he’s just working it out as he goes along. Sure, he was an academic star in school, and he has an idea of what his life should be like, and he’s a really smart guy. But for all the great literature he digested in college, there’s no textbook for how to deal with the opposite sex.

And the movie also works because people are irrational and can’t control their emotions. Em hates her stepmother, not because she’s such a horrible person, just because she’s, well, her stepmother. It works because Hader and Wiig are, more often than not, actually lovable together. It works because Reynolds, as the park’s good-looking wise man, makes exactly the kinds of mistakes he councils the young people against. And it works because any movie that gives a real part to Martin Starr, who played Bill Haverchuck in the short-lived and now-legendary TV show Freaks and Geeks, which spawned everything from Knocked Up to Superbad to, yes, Adventureland gets my vote. Sure, there are plenty of movies like this coming out right now, but Adventureland is the best ride.  

anders@sdcitybeat.com