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Adventureland (R) ***

By Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

The real challenge for Adventureland — a sweet, surprisingly tender romantic comedy set at a Pittsburgh amusement park — is to confound expectations. The film was written and directed by Greg Mottola, who directed the super crude Superbad, and so audiences will either be eager for or repelled by the anticipation of vile language, gross-out humor and horrendously juvenile, if exceedingly funny, behavior.

Instead, Mottola softens his approach, and Adventureland turns out to be more like Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist than a Judd Apatow creation. Set in 1987, it follows the misfortunes of college grad James (Jesse Eisenberg of The Squid and the Whale), forced by family economic disaster to take a summer job at the cheesy Adventureland park instead of traipsing around Europe with a wealthy buddy.

James had hoped to soak in worldly pleasures — art, culture and hopefully the company of women, the latter being a delight with which he is painfully unfamiliar — but what he experiences during his summer at Adventureland is something else entirely. He aspires to work the rides but is stuck with the unenviable task of handing out cheap prizes at the games booths. He makes a new friend in the bright but nerdy Joel (Apatow veteran Martin Starr). He looks up to the cool older guy Connell (Ryan Reynolds, showing a bit of depth here), who does maintenance for the park, plays in a band and once jammed with Lou Reed (or so he says). Most important, though, James meets Em (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart), an NYU student with whom he is immediately infatuated.

All things being equal, James and Em should fall naturally into a relationship. But Em has a secret, and soon enough James has one too, in the form of legendary hottie Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), who doesn’t share Em’s depth but is at least sharp enough to see through James’ awkwardness to the decent guy beneath.

Adventureland hits its ’80s paces dutifully but without overkill, from its acid-washed jeans to big, sprayed hair, with music from the sublime (The Cure’s dazzling Just Like Heaven) to the ridiculous (James is tormented by the park’s constant blasting of Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus, and really, who wouldn’t be?). The worst mistake Mottola makes involves a running joke about a childhood friend who enjoys punching James in the crotch. Happily, amusing bits as the park managers from SNL vets Bill Hader (sporting the world’s greatest ’80s mustache since Magnum P.I.) and Kristen Wiig (who needs more screen time, damn it) make up for the misstep.

Eisenberg wisely plays James as an older version of his smart but hopelessly inexperienced Walt Berkman from Squid, and Stewart infuses Em with a genuine pain that prevents the couple’s uncertainty from ever seeming contrived solely for the purpose of dragging out the movie. Within the confines of this simple romantic comedy, Mottola perceptively explores the way we relate to each other and how fickle we can be even when we know in our hearts what’s right. What seems magical one moment looks plain disastrous in the light of day. And thus befuddled, we revolve around each other, lonely satellites of love.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Martin Starr, Ryan Reynolds.

Director/screenwriter: Greg Mottola.

Producers: Anne Carey, Ted Hope, Sidney Kimmel.

A Miramax release. Running time: 105 minutes. Language, drug use, sexual references. Playing at area theaters.