ABBOT GENSER/MIRAMAX FILMSJesse Eisenberg and Martin Starr in Adventureland

April 1, 2009: They don’t see me as I slip through this multiplex, down shadowy troughs of aisles that reek of the corruption of butter topping gone sour in perverse imitativeness and price inflation. Someday they will cleanse these aisles. Someday the bonelike crunch beneath my shoes, the viscosity like drying blood, will stop crying in my ears like the anguish choked back by an abused boy, the kind who’s alone and smashes people and narrates highly regarded graphic novels. But not tonight. Tonight, in what we’ve made of America, even the dark rain that has been falling for hours in this theater won’t wash away the sick popcorn of human depravity, because there are only three people left who are willing to buy tickets for Watchmen, and as I sink into a shame of lumpish upholstery the other two avert their eyes. One of them looks like Nixon.

So this is what we’ve become: a sparse and flaky excrescence on the surface of mass-market culture, like dandruff in the thin hair of an aging character actor. Soon the show will begin, and for 162 minutes I will witness the truth of Watchmen. Not the false truth of “a movie,” which the others will see, but the true truth of a significant pattern in contemporary thought and social life, visible only to me and my dying kind. Freak, they call me. Psycho. Vigilante. Film critic.

For weeks, months, I’ve monitored this target. I’ve tracked the split between the authors of the graphic novel, the lawsuit between the owners of the movie rights, the argument among Watchmen observers over the plan to release this film with an R rating. (Yes, one of the superheroes has a big blue penis, and it’s all over the trades that grasping moneymen want to expose this thing to teenage boys, but with their rancid, hypocritical R rating they’ve trapped themselves, because now teenage boys aren’t allowed to walk down these mean aisles. They watch for free on the Internet.) I can already smell irony waft off the ideological forces, the economic imperatives, the currents of history thick with the past’s nameless and forgotten plankton, all of them about to clash in this site of contention called Watchmen–and yet I know the others will see nothing of this, nothing except stop-time kung fu rumbles on the rain-slick nocturnal streets of a parallel-universe New York.

The movie starts. Immediately, I see the blue penis, and the special effects are staggering. It walks on its own. It speaks. I suddenly realize it is Clive Owen, clean-shaven for a change, striding up to inspect Julia Roberts’s cleavage at a garden party. This is not Watchmen. It is Duplicity.

So once more I’ve underestimated them. In their hideous determination to maintain, at any cost, their monstrous order, they are even prepared to show me the wrong movie. “Wrong movie,” I write in my critic’s notebook; but I refuse to leave my bucket seat of refuge in this stadium-rowed arena of perpetual night. I will find the pattern, no matter what Rorschach blot they fling at me.

I wait, patient, concealed. And then the essence of the thing erupts, as I knew it would–the mindless violence of greedy apes clawing blindly at each other in a slow-motion rain. They’re Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, pretending to be the heads of competing companies. I can see it’s supposed to be a joke, this grimacing, flailing, kicking, spluttering, even though it grinds on, and on, like the molars of a syphilitic giant writhing in a fever dream. I shudder, gripped by a clammy fear that Duplicity has already shown me more than I was supposed to know.

April 1, 2009, half an hour later: The fight scene between Giamatti and Wilkinson is over. Now we’re supposed to believe it was only an opening credit sequence. But was it? Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are back, pretending to be rival industrial spies for the Giamatti and Wilkinson companies, or cooperating spies who are faking a rivalry, or rival lovers who are faking cooperation. A distraction. I can perceive the real scheme of the movie emerging from all these postcard views and all this James Newton Howard music-by-the-yard. I see it in the way the spies tail one another in the street and then tail one another again, in the way Roberts and Owen speak lines in a New York scene and then speak the same lines in Rome, four years earlier. The mask falls away from the supposed creator of this movie, “Tony Gilroy,” as I gasp at the brazen cunning that has titled this film Duplicity. This is the work of The Doubler.

Once again–no, twice again–The Doubler has struck at the heart of movie culture. In the guise of “Zach Snyder,” visionary director of Watchmen, he has recycled pop artifacts into a story full of laborious flashbacks and repetitive sequences, all about people chasing after an illusion and learning that the power structure will never change. Then, in the guise of “Tony Gilroy,” The Doubler has done just the same thing.

Now, too late, I stumble toward the exit, though I already know it leads nowhere. A chill wind blows trash through the deserted bunker of the multiplex, past rows and rows of empty theaters showing the same movie again and again. History has ended. The Doubler has won.

Somewhere, a forgotten child cries for her Lubitsch.

But on a happier note: Whether hope can survive a systematic course of disillusionment, and love persist after the beloved is known, are the questions at the heart of writer-director Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, a coming-of-age romance for teenagers on dates and the middle-aged on memory trips. Its pleasures may be as airy as colored lights (which figure prominently in the amusement park that’s the main setting), but the feelings turn out to be surprisingly well grounded (the amusement park being in Pittsburgh, circa 1987).

This is where James (Jesse Eisenberg) finds himself immediately after graduating from college: living in his parents’ house and working the sort of entry-level job that has no exit. A shyly handsome lad whose masses of dark curls might outweigh his torso, James had expected to pass the summer before grad school in a different scene of entertainment: the hostels of Europe, where he had hoped to find one woman, just one, who wouldn’t look at his quiveringly sincere features and peg him as a good friend. Now, because of a sudden downgrade in his father’s job description–did it happen before the drinking got serious, or after?–James has to take what he can get, which is Adventureland. Assigned to the games concourse at the park (he is, his employers assure him, definitely a games person, not a rides person), he quickly learns the trade of frustrating skill and optimism by means of covertly applied glue and deformed metal. Base ruses, perpetrated in a place of unrelenting, earsplitting gaiety: for a young man who is already cultivating an air of bleakly amused detachment, it’s hard to tell whether the readymade irony of Adventureland is a burden or a gift.

But there is no doubt about his new colleague, Em: she is a bonanza. Played by the silky and fragile Kristen Stewart, whose insomniac eyes and naturally frowning lips made her Twilight‘s ideal girlfriend for a sensitive vampire, Em meets cute with James on his first day on the job by saving him from a knife-wielding customer–the kind of plug-ugly who is absolutely set on owning a giant stuffed panda.

James quickly learns that Em, too, is articulate, college-educated and just passing through, and he knows from the start that she’s more experienced on the job. It takes him a week or two longer to find out that she is also more experienced at play; and if he notices that she outdoes him in her appetite for booze and marijuana, he doesn’t seem to think about it. With just a couple of close-ups of Em when she’s alone and lost in thought, Adventureland economically signals that this is a young woman with issues; but James, incurious in the fashion of deep-souled and horny young men, fails to ask her a single unprompted question about herself until the summer is almost over. Without insisting too much on the point, the film shows you that he’s wrong. It also shows you he’s fallen in love, in unpromising circumstances and a ridiculous place, and for that he’s absolutely right.

All this is played as comedy, of course; but part of the appeal of Adventureland–the part that keeps the film from becoming as glum and sincere as James–is that the register of the comedy varies. Some of it is naturalistic and observational and pulls the film toward a pain that the characters in their stronger moments might try to laugh off. Some of it is verbally exuberant and satiric, especially when James’s workmate Joel (Martin Starr) is on screen. (A pipe-smoking student of Russian literature who has a misfortune of a little mustache and the hairstyle of Severus Snape, Joel seems to have given up on his life at 22–a mistake that doesn’t prevent him from improving Adventureland with his running commentary.) And then there are elements that remind you of how Greg Mottola was stalled in his career after the early art-house success of The Daytrippers (1996), until he made himself commercially viable by joining the Judd Apatow factory and directing Superbad. In his Apatow manner, Mottola gives Adventureland a light sprinkling of pee jokes and vomit. He also brings in Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig to play the owners of the amusement park, turning them into sketch-comedy characters from Saturday Night Live. The mere listing of these ill-matched components could make you shudder as if you were hearing the gears grind on a Tilt-a-Whirl; but Mottola, blessed with a sense of proportion and a talent for ellipsis, makes them work together so smoothly that you might take Adventureland to be conventional.

It is, up to a point. Then it veers into subjects such as the social rift between the amusement park’s young workers. These characters split roughly along the lines of Jews (freethinking, middle class, sexually worried) and Catholics (tradition-bound, working class, sexually teasing). On its face, this division is an unpleasant convention–or, rather, a stereotype. But when you see how strongly Mottola aligns himself with his Jews, and how unnecessarily (considering the minimal demands of the genre), you might feel as if he’s carried something deeply personal–a grudge from his youth–into the Neverland of a date movie.

The most personal touches of all in Adventureland, though, the ones that truly break the limits, come from the young lead actors. They’re charmers, not powerhouses. You don’t expect that ten years from now they’ll have turned into Kate and Leo. But when Stewart, confronted with a confession of love, has to stammer out the standard demurral about “There’s a lot of shit in my life,” she makes a confusion of tears well up so suddenly that you’re caught off guard, responding to her bitterness almost before the words escape her lips. And when Eisenberg, at the end, is offered an Adventureland T-shirt in highly charged circumstances, he bats it to the side so forcefully that you don’t know whether he’s rejecting a world of dead-end jobs, his errors of the past or the suggestion that he ought to put on some clothes.

The answer is all of the above, summed up in a seemingly unpremeditated motion that’s over in the blink of an eye. When Humphrey Bogart did something like this in The Big Sleep, casting an apparently casual glance upward while crossing a street, Manny Farber wrote that it was one of the finest moments in 1940s film. No lesser praise is due Eisenberg’s instinctive gesture, at the happy end of just another girls-and-boys comedy.