“Wow,” the friend breathes as Emma Roberts picks up a book by her newly minted poetry idol and prepares to read a moving, brooding passage. “It’s practically ancient.”
On the back of the dust jacket is a picture of the poet, gone-to-seed, failed-sophomore-effort wunderkind Rat Billings, played by John Cusack. The photo is a circa Say Anything… headshot. Cusack looks unbelievably young, and as familiar as a face out of one of my own old high school yearbooks. Like an old friend I’d lost track of. The spare mouth, the dark eyes, the crackle of nervous energy that seemed to emanate even from him even in a posed still image.
“Yeah. It’s from like 1989.”
As I send out invitations to my own 25th high school reunion, may I simply say “Ouch?”
Adult World is a coming-of-age indie directed by Scott Coffey and starring Emma Roberts as a painfully sincere and naïve, cloistered suburbanite college grad who knows nothing about nothing and is determined to be a Famous Poet. (Dispatch from Poetrystan: there are no famous poets, but being as big of a hack as this chick can only be a step in the right direction, an irony not lost on these actors or the scriptwriter.) She ends up running away from home and going to work at a mom-and-pop porn shop run by a very grandmotherly—my God, is that Chloris Leachman?—called, of course, “Adult World.” That is called a double-entendre. Meanwhile she starts stalking Rat Billings in a desperate bid to become his “protégé.” That is a hilarious notion to any of us who are old enough to have watched the poetry graduate degree go from niche to industry, and Cusack sums it up nicely with the rejoinder, “I haven’t heard that one, sober and with my pants on, for a long time.” It’s a word that doesn’t mean what it actually means, which is “protected.” It means lackey. At best.
The Anti-Dobler Effect
You’ve got it: Cusack is not the preternaturally young, sweet-faced Irish boy smartypants idealistic iconoclast hero this time. He’s the jaded crabapple middle-aged mentor. Specifically of the “tor-mentor” school, in which a particularly self-loathing artist past his pinnacle takes out his fear and frustration over his own burgeoning irrelevance on someone whose youth and idealism and self-confidence provokes a road-rage beyond reckoning as he sees a funhouse contortion of his own optimistic youth. That part’s very real. I know several Rat Billingses and have even had the mixed fortune to work with one or two—something I was able to do with no lasting psychic damage because I had two amazing mentors when I was a kid, and because now I am a calloused old cougar. The Rats teach you stuff, all right. Lesson one: don’t idealize or admire anyone. Especially not them, and especially not yourself. Lesson Two: see above. Lesson three: go live your own life and don’t give a Rat’s ass what your heroes and elders do or don’t think of you. In the end it’s a valid syllabus, even if their pedagogy can range from world-weary and indifferent to wantonly abusive. Rat Billings is abusive. But also—and I don’t say this lightly—the girl is begging for it. “Literally, and figuratively.”
Adult World isn’t a perfect movie. Sometimes it’s clever, sometimes trite. Sometimes Emma Roberts is spot-on and sometimes she leaves one wondering why we need a featherweight Anne Hathaway. It has some tropes that would get it excoriated if it were a poem someone submitted to Ploughshares. But it also hits a rather excruciatingly note-perfect interplay between poetry and pornography, between Baring Your Soul and Bearing it and between asking for it … and getting it.
Whatever its imperfections, this movie and John Cusack are perfect for each other. And as he has been unwittingly doing for a quarter century, he has appeared in yet another role that weirdly sums up a moment of my own life that needed summing up just right exactly then. What makes Adult World great is the web of references and metaphors and conceits that, incidentally, are also the skeleton keys to a lot of good poems. Cusack’s famously fielded a couple of stalkers, a fact embedded in every scene between him and Roberts. The ironic references to age and irrelevance and senescence (especially considering that this man is not yet fifty and only becoming more interesting as an actor) are by turns poignant, snicker-inducing, and a little brutal, beginning with the “practically ancient” quip about a poem from 1989 (the year Cusack scored his first real hit with Say Anything…). When Roberts loses it and smashes his guitar (is that a Martin?) the look on his face is priceless—part offended, part amused (even this kid’s meltdown is a cliché!), part angry, part … what, almost liberated. It’s cool even if you don’t know how much this guy loves music. That is called symbolism, and it is very out of style in poetry right now. But that is part of the poetry of that moment.
Cusack has been in a lot of movies, some I haven’t seen and some that I think are firmly in the “meh” zone. But when he gets the right project, he gets the project right. He’s done something pretty fabulous with this one, nailing the role of the self-defeating rat-bastard writer that even actual self-defeating rat-bastard writers allow to devolve into epic self-parodying cliché. I can think of several Jaded Asshat Dark and Edgy poets and novelists who could take notes from this guy on how to Fail Better. Which is to say, succeed.
In fact, now that we’re adults…
Speaking of Saying Anything…
Hey, John Cusack! My name is Amy, and I’m a poet. And I was wondering if you’d maybe go out to dinner with me sometime?
Yes, you. You ridiculously articulate and articulated-ridiculous, too smart for your own good slightly disconcerting quasi-misfit, you hopeless Romantic with a side of Extreme Diffidence, you Don’t Suffer Fools idealist, you Unlikely Hero, pop culture psychopomp, preternaturally sincere but slyly ironic, you, with the eyebrows—you, more than any actor of our generation, defined my young adult years and now you’re messing with my forties, playing tormented writers contemplating their posterity and not always liking what they see. I don’t know, John—there’s an old-saw Irish saying I like to quote: “Aithníonn cíaróg cíaróg eile,” or “one beetle recognizes another beetle.” And I recognized you the minute you hoisted that boombox, blaring Peter Gabriel, wearing that absurd trench coat that even David Byrne would’ve told you was too big for you. That was 1989! I graduated high school that year. We are Practically Ancient, you and I.
You got me with High Fidelity. You got me with Serendipity. You suckerpunched me to the nth with Grosse Pointe Blank, a film I related to so deeply I almost felt like I’d written it (and watched so many times I can probably recite most of it. Again and again, to keep myself convinced you could go home again). You know, I had a Debbie, too. We just didn’t get the cool ambiguous happy ending scene.
And now here you are again, back to point out to me that we are now middle-aged people with unfinished business. I did the unthinkable and ended a marriage. You did the unthinkable and transited from geeky teen heartthrob to grownup, prompting me to realize I wasn’t the kid in my high school headshot, either. The truth is, I wouldn’t go back there for anything, and I’m betting neither would you, but … well, yeah.
The Adult World has its pluses and minuses.
You and I both know, John, that artists are, on the page, the screen, the canvas, at once their most authentic selves and the exact opposite of that: avatars, constructs, masks. We’ve both worked hard on those masks and constructs—mine lives in a world where relatively few people notice or care; you probably have trouble going out to dinner without being hassled by strangers who need you to know how much they love you.
But I’m asking anyway, because I happen to like the way you’re constructed. And I mean your sense of humor and your intellect (yes to Garcia Marquez!)—though I would be lying if I tried to claim that Cupid’s bow lip of yours has not been making me melt since I was fourteen. And as I don’t think I need to point out to you, time is moving uncomfortably fast.
Before you Say Anything:
1) The top two items on the Top Five Places I Should Have Spent Some Time By Now list are Buenos Aires, and Chicago. I have no idea how I reached this age without setting a foot outside O’Hare’s C Terminal, but no one who loves food, music and architecture as much as I do can possibly have a valid excuse. You can get a two-top at Alinea by just winking at someone, right? Because of the movie star thing? I’m not that into the movie star thing, honestly, I think it torques people who don’t have an extraordinary amount of soul and gumption. But we cannot deny it takes the logistical hassles out of fine dining.
2) You should know I’m not really into baseball. Not like I hate it—I just don’t care that much. I probably should—without Lefty O’Doul I might never have been born. Long story—can tell you over dinner.
3) We like a lot of the same music. Oh—and I’d dropkick anyone who swooned over Celine Dion, too. In fact, I did develop an embarrassing, unswallowable contempt for a Nice Guy I dated in my 20s because he insisted that it was empirically provable that U2 was the greatest rock band ever. Long story. (Not that long actually.)
4) I can act, but I quit when I was 27. I’ve never been seen on the big screen, though I did write a song for an indie that did well on the festival circuit and scored a very exuberant blurb from David Lynch. The movie takes place in a strip club men’s room—if you’ve seen it, the voice in the opening montage is mine. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a crappy dancer.)
5) I have a Top Five (okay, maybe Top Ten) list of films I’ll watch over and over again when I need to feel okay about things in my life that aren’t okay. You are in four of them. And you’re in some pretty rarified company.
It’s okay if you aren’t into it. Who knows, maybe we wouldn’t find each other interesting—but I have to tell you I doubt it. Either way, kudos on a subtle, nuanced, lovely, ache-inducing performance as a man who deliberately rechristened himself “Rat.” As I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, rats are intelligent, social, and omnivorous. In Chinese astrology, they symbolize resourcefulness and the ability to survive anything. Rat people are considered magnetic, innovative and attractive. (Of course, rats are also known for vectoring bubonic plague, and I have had them chew through the wiring harness of an expensive Bosch dishwasher, which wasn’t cool. But I digress.) You did good. I’m not sure how well Adult World would have come together without you in that role. Your work has meant a lot to me for a long time, and I can’t think of anyone I’d prefer to have ferry me into this odd interlude of fully-fledged adult-worldliness. And I’m not kidding, I’d really like to take you out some time.
Oh, and if you end up doing that Bulgakov adaptation … let me know if you need a writer. I can organize you! Seriously, I think you’d be killer as Woland.
Amy Glynn is a Super Famous Poet. Her interests include non-plagiaristic suicide, pet psychiatry, Peter Gabriel, The New Yorker, Italian wine, Grant Achatz, the President of Paraguay, Federico Garcia Lorca, home beekeeping and serendipity. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.