"Adventureland" is a young adult romantic comedy with a sweetness and delicacy that lifts it out of its genre. Set in 1987, it's about James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent college graduate whose plans to bop around Europe and attend Columbia graduate school are derailed when his father's finances take a nosedive. Instead, he takes a summer job at the local "funtastic" Adventureland amusement park in Pittsburgh, where he fronts the Horse Derby game and fends off its whiny, boozy patrons. If this was not indignity enough, the park owner (Bill Hader) cautions him against bestowing expensive giant stuffed pandas on the winners.
The writer-director Greg Mottola ("The Daytrippers," "Superbad") once worked at a Long Island amusement park, which explains the film's freshness of observation. He captures the bone-deep tedium, the endless repetitions of theme park music, the weary cynicism of the co-workers, the aggravations of attendees straining to have a good time. Mottola knows how to create a buzzing interplay among his people. The work environment here, with its backbiting and squiggly humor and flirtations and paranoia, should be instantly recognizable to just about anybody who has ever held down a job. (Given the state of the economy and the dearth of work for postcollegians, James's lowered-expectation travails may hit home with young audiences.)
Still a virgin, James is smitten by a park co-worker who is anything but – the edgy, mercurial Em (Kristen Stewart, who made this film before "Twilight" made her a star.) Em can't abide her imperious stepmother and spends much of her time, when she isn't trysting with the park's married handyman (Ryan Reynolds), in a huff. But she's touched by James's innocence, by his ardor for her. James was a lit major and a bookish romanticism still hangs over him. He is valiant in his pursuit of Em even though he doesn't really know what he's doing, and his moves are anything but slick. He wins her over anyway.
But not without some obstacles along the way. When the park sexpot, Lisa P (the marvelous Margarita Levieva), asks him out, he can't believe his luck even though she is not a prize he coveted. The scene where they have dinner together is wonderfully played – they both turn out to be babes in the wood.
Mottola moves his actors beyond the usual kid-pic stereotypes. His rapport with them is total. His scenario is excessively padded, especially toward the end, and he showers us with at least one too many goofball.gross-out scenes. But audiences expecting another dumb wallow will be startled, and I hope enlivened, by this movie's core of feeling. Grade: A- (Rated R for language, drug use, and sexual references.)