Instead James goes to the local amusement park Adventureland and tries to get a job running the rides, but his boss Bobby (the always wonderful Bill Hader) puts him at games instead. Mottola immediately shows James as a kind of snob who would rather work on rides (the cooler of the jobs), but is forced to work on games (where the nerds work) because Bobby has "already pulled out the application for games." This is where Adventureland could have gone all wrong. I was half expecting a slobs vs. snobs type film where the "games" people snicker and sneer at the well-to-do "rides" people, all the while the better-off James would have to betray his own "kind" and side with the slobs. But thank God Mottola is too smart for that. What we get instead is a beautiful elegy to the summer nights that Mottola must have experienced growing up in Pittsburgh.
It's no surprise to any film buff that Em and James will try to hook up, but what is surprising is how Mottola handles it. Em is more complicated than she lets on, and there may be something between her and the married Mike. Much like a lot of the tropes used in a film of this ilk (young people smoking weed/drinking/trying to hook up) Mottola handles them as if they're old hat to these people. These are just things they do, and Mottola doesn't draw a lot of attention to it as a lot of other filmmakers might. He understands that the joke is not about the weed, or the awkward attempts to get drunk or get laid (after all these characters are all college graduates or finishing up their undergrad, so it's safe to assume they've gotten all that awkwardness of trying new things out of the way), but the joke is in human behavior. There's a surprising amount of nuance in this film.
The summer feeling Mottola's film evokes I'm sure is palpable for almost anyone. I didn't have a seasonal amusement park to hang out as young 20-something, but the summer-nights feel that Mottola elicits is universal, and I definitely felt a pang of nostalgia throughout the entire viewing experience. By the end of the film James is hit with some news that alters his plans, and he must make a decision to leave home or continue to waste his time in Pittsburgh. Adventureland is a bildungsroman in that regard: James has to make an important life decision by the end of the film, and through that decision he's learned a little bit more about his hometown.
The other acting is great, too. The aforementioned Bill Hader never fails to make me laugh. He and Kristin Wiig who play the husband and wife that run Adventureland have some great moments that seamlessly flow with the rest of the film. When I first saw the two of them pop up on screen I was afraid that they would feel like they were in a totally different movie; however, I thought that Mottola used them just enough, and with great results. Ryan Reynolds also has a nice supporting role that has more depth to it than we're accustomed to with characters like his. He has an aura about him that draws James towards him, but there's also something else about him that calls his character into question, and that's one of the surprising things about the film, everything is handled with more care and depth than I was anticipating.
I was stunned by Adventureland and how deep it was for the type of film I was expecting. Here's a film that perfectly evokes that summertime nostalgia we've all experienced growing up. Mottola's film is universal in that sense; his experiences were from the 80's and involved a seasonal amusement park, my experiences were from the early 2000's and would involve much different music than what is used on Mottola's soundtrack, but that's what's so wonderful about the film: everyone can bring their own experiences to it. I love when movies surprise me like this and take me to a very specific time and place that is obviously important to the filmmaker.