Overview: A young woman struggles with literary rejection, stalks her favorite writer, and makes ends meet by working in a sex shop. IFC Films; 2014; Rated R; 93 Minutes.
Emma Roberts: Eccentricity is better suited for supporting characters. An audience’s constant exposure to a character’s quirkiness can severely compromise the likability of that character (see: Garden State, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Juno, basically any Johnny Depp movie). In the dark comedy Adult World, a young Emma Roberts accepts the challenge. Amy is the personification of unearned pretension and every other negative preconception about the modern, disingenuous, struggling young artist. She’s burdened her parents by moving back into their house, hanging her Sylvia Plath poster on the wall (because of course), and reverting back to the role of a complete dependent. She fights for adult consideration while unaware that most of the time she behaves like a naïve child. All of this is the result of her confident pursuit of poetic fame. Where director Scott Coffey, writer Andy Cochran, and Roberts succeed is in their acceptance that functionality of a quirky, darkly comic character isn’t predicated upon her likability. Amy is funny without always being sympathetic. In fact, she’s often wholly unlikable. There is no way to gauge whether her poetry deserves the credit she seeks, because none of the other characters let her read it aloud (and who can blame them). It is in these interactions that Roberts exhibits her greatest strength in this film. She earns more than a few chuckles in her self-protecting logic, her acrobatic insistence on her inevitable literary breakthrough, and her quick snapback reactions to people who challenge her ambition. When the film places her in more complicated contexts, the product struggles. There are many stretches of aimless narrative wandering and script uncertainty, wherein Roberts is left to fend for herself.
John Cusack: There are two traditional John Cusack’s: 1.) the endearing charmer of the 80s and the faded echo that stretched too long into two subsequent decades and 2.) the bitter, cynical Cusack who serves as a stand-in for directors with shadowy philosophical intent. Adult World attempts to utilize the second John Cusack as a counterbalance to Amy. Amy’s favorite writer, Rat Billings, is a jaded, aged poet who tasted early success and saw it slip from his hands and reputation. He might have proven a great supplementary measurement of literary culture, but Cusack seems uncommitted to the point of cartoonish and his dollar store performance causes imbalance.
Additional: The sex store backdrop never fulfills any potential. (The name of the store is the film’s title, Adult World, and if you can read this sentence, I assume you’re smart enough to untangle the obvious layered metaphor). Alex (Evan Peters) is devilish and charming, the perfect foil for Amy, but his unambitious artistry creates a reheated revisitation of the difference between wanting to make art and wanting to be an artist. That debate and Emma Roberts’ performance would be more at home in better films.