ADULT WORLD (Scott Coffey, 2013)
The glut of talent competition shows on television push the narrative that everyone is a potential superstar. A glance at AMERICAN IDOL, THE VOICE, SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE, and the like reveals teens and young adults convinced that discovery is the only thing keeping them from fame and fortune. Even when the judges and viewing public deny them passage to the next round, the aspiring performers often refuse to believe the rejections stem from not being good enough. Some are surely right that evaluators are failing to recognize their skills, but a great many are incapable of accepting the hard truth that they aren’t as great as they think, especially when their self-esteems have been shielded from challenges.
ADULT WORLD’s would-be poet Amy Anderson (Emma Roberts) is one of those special little flowers. She sails through Syracuse University with top grades and is told by everyone how terrific her writing is. The economic prospects for a poet aren’t exactly numerous nowadays, but Amy eagerly submits to as many literary journals and contests as she can find with full confidence that something will come through. Like many who have earned degrees but aren’t yet making a living, she stays at home with her parents in the suburbs. They’re supportive of her dream but eventually have to insist that Amy starts bringing in some money in the meantime. She has $90,000 in college loans beginning to come due, and they can’t foot all of her expenses.
Amy’s specialized education and lack of retail experience do not make her an attractive candidate to those doing the hiring, so she’s desperate to find anyone who might provide an opportunity for a regular check. Although the mom-and-pop porn shop Adult World isn’t where she envisioned herself working, the owners are willing to bring her on as a clerk. Every small victory seems to come with a setback, though. Shortly thereafter Amy has her car stolen and gets into an argument with her parents over her financial irresponsibility. She runs away from home with nowhere to go but the place where transvestite acquaintance Rubia (Armando Riesco) is squatting. She meets Rat Billings (John Cusack), a writer she idolizes, and wears him down into letting her be his assistant even though he has no interest in serving as her mentor.
Unlike AMERICAN IDOL, which derives pleasure in humiliating singers deluded about the level of their abilities, ADULT WORLD doesn’t intend to burst Amy’s bubble but to remove it gradually for her own benefit. In reading verse aloud as if it were divine wisdom, Roberts plays up the insufferable nature of the self-identifying artiste. She is funny in maintaining the sincerity of the character’s passion while displaying the clumsiness of her inexperience. Amy’s hilarious attempted seduction of Rat typifies her actions as the caricatured motions and words of someone whose deepest interactions have been with art than people.
As Rat, Cusack demonstrates no patience for such obliviousness and optimism. His wry performance carries the fatigue of someone famous who has long since lost any enjoyment in having admirers excitedly bare their souls and repeat favorite passages to him. Films tend to depict the act of creation with great romance, but Cusack is here to yank those images aside to say that it can be a grind.
ADULT WORLD’s forced quirkiness overwhelms the good effort Roberts and Cusack give it. Amy’s naiveté would be more credible if she had just finished high school. The porn shop setting and what can uncharitably be described as a magical transvestite character come off as lazy attempts to try and make the film edgier without actually doing so. In that way ADULT WORLD is not very different than Amy as it mistakes idiosyncrasy for cleverness and knowledge.