The movie is a sentimental (not sappy, mind), very personal, journey through the summer of 1987 for recent college grad and deep thinker James Brennan (played superbly by Jesse Eisenberg), whose plans for the summer fall apart (due to Reaganomics affecting his father's income) resulting in him having to get a crappy job at the titular amusement park. There he meets Em, played by Kristen Stewart, and the romance, which is the focus of the film, begins. This is very, very far removed from the slob-meets-babe formula common in comedies in recent years. James is a virgin, true, a 22 year old one at that, but that has far more to do with the character's tentative nature than any 'quest' to get laid (ala "The 40 Year Old Virgin", which works on its own terms of course, but is again nothing like "Adventureland"), and he is far from bad looking. Em isn't a dolled-up 'hot chick' with perfectly styled hair and perfect style, she's moderately well-dressed and naturally beautiful, but wears makeup in a grand total of two scenes, and is actually NOT the 'babe' in the film (that's Margarita Levieva as Lisa P, who, though the 'babe', is not the sought-after one).
I am finding it hard to describe exactly why I loved this film as much as I did, but I think it mostly comes down to subtle, wonderful writing by Mottola, who was obviously telling a personal story here and did a great job of it. The screenplay is a funny, poignant take on post-collegiate angst and love, with some elements of social satire, and its focus is one of the most memorable and wonderful romances in quite some time. This romance makes Stewart's breakthrough hit "Twilight" seem even more offensively dumb, because of just how real it is.
Mottola, who absolutely nailed "Superbad" as a director, does even more with "Adventureland". His work with the actors is perhaps most notable. Bill Hader does what he did in "Superbad" and Matt Bush plays a slapstick role as Tommy Frigo, but everyone else is given more emotional poignancy and range to work with. Ryan Reynolds has abandoned his trademark smarmy shtick for a straight role in the film. As noted by Nathan Rabin in his review of "Adventureland", in a lesser film Reynolds (a failed attempt at a 'rock star' who is in an unhappy marriage and is having an affair with Em, and who is a loser to everyone but the deadbeats younger than him at the amusement park) would be a villain, James Brennan's adversary in a typical love triangle. In "Adventureland" he's a real person, and a rather tragic character. Not a nice guy, not a bad guy either. Martin Starr is great in the main supporting role as Joel. Mottola's direction is fantastic visually as well, with every scene brimming with intensity when it needs to be and the comedic timing again excellent. His use of music is absolutely spot-on, and if you thought the funky greatness of the "Superbad" soundtrack was good wait until you hear this low-key but incredible soundtrack made up almost entirely by great 80's pop songs (and not the mainstream garbage). Great musical score by Yo La Tengo as well.
The film is ultimately such a massive success I think due to Kristen Stewart. I knew she was a capable actress but did not know that she was this terrific. She is transformed into Em for the entirety of the film, and is overwhelmingly intense for the entirety of her performance, whether the raw (but not even close to raunchy) sexuality of her scenes with Eisenberg (and boy do they have a rare sort of chemistry) or the understated sadness of her scenes with Reynolds. Eisenberg and Stewart are so wonderfully understated with their performances that their romance feels realer than anything I've seen since Zooey Deschanel and Dan Schneider in David Gordon Green's "All the Real Girls". This might be a familiar journey but the treatment of Reynolds' character is only one thing Mottola does different from the John Hugheses of the world. Everything about this film is just more real and more understated than so much of what we've seen done with similar things.
The film has one or two scenes where plain lust is the focus, and absolutely none where the movie becomes about sex jokes. That James is a virgin is a side note, part of the character and nothing more. It couldn't be less about James wanting to bed Em, it couldn't be more about him being totally in love with her. Although critics are falling over themselves to praise the film (89% on RottenTomatoes at the time I'm writing this and a score in the high 70's on Metacritic) some have called it 'ordinary'. Perhaps much of the public will agree with that minority of the critics, but the film thrives on capturing 'ordinary moments'. The simple beauty of James, Em, and Joel watching fireworks on the 4th of July or a marijuana-fueled bumper car round scored to "Just Like Heaven" by The Cure. That's what this film is about. It's wonderful, it's beautiful, and if it's not a sleeper hit this year then it will eventually become a cult classic. It's something special, that much I know for sure.