James (Jesse Eisenberg) anticipated a summer trip to Europe after graduating from college and before starting graduate school in New York. Things have not been going well at work for his dad, though, so James must find a summer job. Bright and painfully earnest though he is, he lacks marketable skills: "I'm not even qualified for manual labor," he laments. So he signs on with the local employer of last resort, running game booths at the local amusement park.
Shabby Adventureland isn't such an amusing place to work. The games are rigged so that no one ever wins the big stuffed panda. The customers (hooligans or snide, slumming preppies) try to cheat anyway, and the proprietors ("SNL" icons Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig) never crack a smile. But there's a bigger adventure awaiting James. As he picks up lessons on human nature from his co-workers and flirts with his first serious relationship, he's entering the pell-mell bumper car ride of adulthood.
The film is a perfect storm of heart, humor, smart writing and spot-on casting. Eisenberg perfects the cautious, deadpan anxiety he patented in "The Squid and the Whale." When James offers a letter of recommendation praising his lawn-mowing skills to a prospective boss, you'd think he was presenting references from Harvard Business School.
He's an uptight Renaissance studies major, a combination of innocence and wisdom so besotted with the ideal of romantic love that he has preserved his virginity. He's always reining in impetuous impulses, a difficult challenge when he begins to fall for lovely, emotionally complicated Em (Kristen Stewart, "Twilight"), a co-worker at the park. And she returns the feeling, kind of, because he's so different from most of the Pittsburgh bad boys in her orbit.
Eisenberg and Stewart nail the turbulence of youth, when parents exemplify the enormous injustices of the world and romantic yearning can ignite joy or jealousy depending on the moment. The supporting roles are equally well-cast. Ryan Reynolds is subtle and poignant as Connell, the park's ultracool mechanic and local music legend, who allegedly once jammed with Lou Reed. Reynolds makes a bid for the kind of dramedy cred that Bill Murray has won in recent years; he lets us see that the charismatic Connell knows he'll soon be a sad man living in a rut.
The laughs bounce higher because the characters have depth and the emotional facts of their lives are observed honestly. When Connell and James say goodbye at the end of the season, it's unclear which one is the adult and which the child. And the final scene is a gift. James may not be on the same page with the person he needs, but they're in the same room, and that's a start.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186