"Adventureland" isn't a message movie, but one of the messages it nevertheless imparts is this: No matter how long you spend at an amusement park trying to toss a wooden ring around the neck of a bottle, you're never going to win the "giant-ass panda" that is the top prize for doing so, because the game is rigged. There's a more important auxiliary message, though: With sufficiently bold improvisation, the panda can be yours. I'd like to think that feat needn't require possession of a weapon, as it does in this sparkling comedy, and I believe the characters would like to think so, too. You just gotta have heart.

The movie is a major step up for its two stars, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. He plays James Brennan, a young man whose plan for spending the post-college summer of 1987 in Europe before starting grad school at Columbia in the fall collapses after his parents suffer a serious financial setback. He is thus suddenly stuck at home in small-town Pennsylvania, where he's compelled to take a job at Adventureland, the tacky local amusement park, a place where dreams go to die. Here he meets Stewart's character, Em, an NYU student who's passing the summer with her remarried dad and his insufferable new wife — and also carrying on an icky after-hours affair with the park's married maintenance man, Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a failing musician on the other side of 30 whose sole claim to distinction is having once "jammed with Lou Reed." (As if Lou Reed were in the habit of jamming with anyone.) James is an unusual type for a movie of this sort: not just brainy, but smart — he's anything but a slacker. Em is even smarter in certain ways: She knows things James may never know — things she's coming to wish she didn't know herself.

Director Greg Mottola's last film, "Superbad," was a pure product of the Judd Apatow laugh factory — a raucous exercise in male arrested development. "Adventureland" bears no resemblance to that movie; it's set in traditional youth-flick country, but it strikes out for more interesting territory. In a picture more reliant on cliché (fortunately, Mottola also wrote the script), Em might be set up as a supposedly unattainable prize to be cutely won by James, whose hyper-verbal intelligence knocks him out of synch with the workaday world. (His mind has a mind of its own.) But he doesn't buy into this dork stereotype — why should he? He simply perseveres. And Em doesn't see James as some sort of heaven-sent chance to regain the innocence she's lost in her squalid trysts with Connell; the movie doesn't pretend that innocence can be regained — Em needs a new direction in her life, and James just might be going her way. Nothing in the movie is over-determined, and nothing about these characters rings false.

Eisenberg, with his skittery earnestness, and Stewart, a dream girl with unexpected demons, are a perfect match in these roles — both of them open up new vistas of future career direction. And the other main characters are portrayed with similar invention as they go about their silly duties among the park's bumper cars and Tilt-A-Whirls. The gangly, girl-challenged Russian-lit major Joel (Martin Starr), a career-schmo in the making, brings a prickly deadpan woe to his scenes. (Explaining the bent hoops that prevent anyone from winning a basketball-based game, he laments a "criminal use of the laws of perspective.") And park hottie Lisa P (Margarita Levieva) vividly embodies the disco life force of the period, if not much else. (When James, acknowledging the tragic lack of fabulousness that Lisa instantly perceives in him, tells her, "I guess my legend precedes me," she says, "What?") Also on hand are the park's whacked-out owners, played by Bill Hader and the invaluable Kristen Wiig (she always seems besieged by the daffy non sequiturs crackling through her head). But the most affecting character is Reynolds' Connell — a man whose tatty hookups with each season's park ingénues (carried out in the basement of his mom's house, a lone refuge from his wife) are emblems of the downward trajectory of his life. He's not a bad guy, but he knows he's not much good, either; and Reynolds, here muting his romantic star power, captures Connell's gathering despondence with gentle precision.

Apart from the consistently funny lines and situations that flow through the movie, there's an unusually perceptive appreciation of the part that music plays in people's lives. The year may be 1987, but the hits of that day — by Bruce Hornsby, Wang Chung or Starship, say — are never name-checked. (Falco's 1985 "Rock Me Amadeus" is incessantly pumped through the park's sound system, but it drives everybody nuts.) The music that James and Em and their friends favor comes from a place far beyond the pop charts — we hear them enthusing over Big Star, Brian Eno, the Replacements and the Velvet Underground. (Lou Reed's work is wittily referenced throughout the film, and the scene in which we see James sadly knocking back drinks in a bar while the Velvets' "Pale Blue Eyes" plays on the jukebox has the glow of magical recontextualization.) James and Em aren't youth-movie clichés; they're people we immediately know without having to have them over-explained. They may contemplate the possibility of catching Judas Priest at the local arena, but secretly they'd just as soon snuggle down with a copy of Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets. And we understand. Because here they come.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Alien Trespass," also opening this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Adventureland."

For breaking comic book movie news, columns and more — updated around the clock — visit SplashPage.com.