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“Adventureland,” it turns out, is the best kind of nostalgia movie — the kind that doesn't punch you in the face with nostalgia.
It's a romantic coming-of-age comedy set at the tail end of the Reagan administration in a run-down amusement park (think county fair, not Six Flags). Carnies, rigged games, rickety rides, tetanus waiting to happen — this is where our hero (Jesse Eisenberg) looks for love.
Well, really he's just looking for grad school. His name is James Brennan, he's been accepted to Columbia, and he thinks his parents are going to pay for it and partially subsidize a summer trip to Europe beforehand so he can see the world.
But his dad's been demoted, money's tight, and if he wants to make it to Columbia, he's going to need a summer job. Adventureland awaits.
There he meets the usual cast of characters you'd expect to see in this kind of comedy: the awkward but perceptive nerd, the hot girl everyone wants to have sex with, the cool guy everyone wants to hang out with, and of course, the troubled and beautiful and soulful and, yes, a-little-bit-screwed-up girl. You can guess who James is going to be most interested in.
This thing's ‘80s through and through, but it doesn't turn it into the usual OH MY GOD CAN YOU BELIEVE WE DRESSED LIKE THAT sort of shtick you'll see in movies like “The Wedding Singer.” It's a story that happens to take place then, not a movie in which the decade itself is a character played by Sasha Baron Cohen. The soundtrack is excellent (Lou Reed, Bowie, Yo La Tengo) except where it's supposed to be awful (Falco — no, you know what? I'm not going to dig into Falco here. I freaking rocked out to “Rock Me Amadeus” back in the day, because it's a decent pop song with a good hook). In short, we're in cool nerd territory, set in a time before such a thing had a name.
It's fairly reminiscent of “Dazed and Confused,” down to the analysis of the role of drinking and drugs in youth culture, and even has some of the feel — though it's smarter and more subtle and not quite the gutbuster “Dazed” was. But I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy it stoned.
What struck me about “Adventureland,” though, was that it's quite a well-executed tip of the hat to the John Hughes movies of that era. There's nothing stylistically too similar, these aren't copies (except in the sense that we're dealing with an awkward and kind of nerdy guy trying to win over a girl who's probably out of his league), but it has much of the heart and pathos of Hughes' oeuvre. It felt, in short, like I was watching an ‘80s movie, rather than watching a movie about the ‘80s. And that's the highest praise I can think to give a film like this.
Other than perhaps the solid script, acting, and direction across the board. This movie's a lot more mature and restrained and subtle than I expected it to be. Nobody phones it in, nobody's a caricature. This is honest and funny and sometimes embarrassing and, yes, maybe a touch contrived at times, but overall the damn thing just works and will likely leave you smiling.