The satirical comedy Adult World, directed by Scott Coffey, is a post-collegiate exploration of middle class ennui and obsession with fame and fortune. Ben Stiller mined somewhat similar territory in the Generation X-centric film, Reality Bites, but any direct comparison would be unfair. There’s potential for a great coming-of-age film here, but while innocuously entertaining, Adult World is missing both substance and, at times, any mooring in reality.
In a complete departure from her last big-screen role as the street-wise, daughter-for-hire in the raunchy comedy We’re the Millers, Emma Roberts plays Amy Anderson, a naive college grad who believes that she can conquer the world—with nothing more than a poetry degree and rose-colored glasses. She’s on a truncated timeline to become the voice of her generation since she knows that “you can’t be a wunderkind past 22.”
In a way, Amy is representative of (some) members of the millennial generation. Because of her $90,000 debt in student loans, she’s forced to move home with her parents (Catherine Lloyd Burns and Reed Birney). What money she can borrow from them, she uses to submit her work to poetry magazines, writing competitions and even the hallowed pages of The New Yorker.
Her parents have supported her, coddled her and spoon-fed the mantra that anything is possible through hard work and dedication. Despite the good intentions, the decidedly middle class family is finally feeling the pinch of Amy’s dreams, and she’s forced to
work. Unsurprisingly, the job market in Syracuse, N.Y., isn’t hospitable to unemployed poets, so she hesitantly takes the only job available as a clerk in an adult toy and bookstore.
Lucky for the virginal heroine, Adult World is probably the most sanitized and family-friendly sex shop around. It’s owned by a frisky elderly couple, played by Cloris Leachman and John Cullum, in woefully throwaway roles. They treat staff like family and even provide health coverage (which is a little hard to swallow, even as satire). As a bonus, the cute store manager, Alex (Evan Peters), isn’t creepy at all, and neither are most of the customers. (Armando Riesco does a terrific turn here as store patron and drag queen Rubia, with a performance that balances both the humor and humanity of the character expertly.)
Rather than focusing on Amy’s adventures in a strange new world, Coffey and screenwriter Andy Cochran instead have Amy pursue reclusive punk poet Rat Billings (John Cusack), “one of the greatest poets of the early ’90s,” as a mentor. She stalks him—in a nice way, of course—and he reluctantly relents to her high-pitched pleas, agreeing to read her poetry in exchange for housekeeping.
The low-key, sardonic Rat—played deliciously like an anti-Lloyd Dobler by Cusack—spends his days teaching at a college and indirectly trying to tell Amy that her poetry sucks. He’s astounded, as are we, that she keeps coming back for more insults. It’s not until the release of his latest anthology, which includes one of her poems, that Amy realizes that her work has been featured in a volume of bad verse, a book headed straight for the novelty aisle at Urban Outfitters.
While it may sound harsh, it’s only at this point that we can finally take pity on the little girl lost. For all her Pollyanna-esque qualities, Amy’s not a likable character, with Roberts proving that she can play annoying to the hilt. After her car’s been impounded, Amy’s forced to take public transportation and tells her parents that “riding the bus is like being in Mogadishu.” Really? When she runs away from home, she ends up on Rubia’s doorstep because she remembered the drag queen’s bus stop. Apparently, Amy has no friends in town, and we can understand why.
In one of the film’s more telling scenes, Alex, who’s an artist when not working at the sex shop, asks Amy whether she ever writes for herself rather than for the pursuit of fame and fortune. “No, not really,” she says. It’s an honest answer, but we were hoping for more from her—and from Adult World.
Director: Scott Coffey
Writer: Andy Cochran
Starring: Emma Roberts, John Cusack, Evan Peters, Armando Riesco
Release date: Feb. 14, 2014