The title of Scott Coffey’s new film is a pretty obvious double entendre, but it does efficiently convey the good intentions behind this scattershot production. Adult World is the name of a run-down sex shop in upstate New York where wannabe-poet Amy (Emma Roberts) takes a job, and it also describes the greater stakes of the story: a self-centered young woman’s inept transition into real life. Adult World bears a resemblance to Ghost World, another darkly comedic examination of an unremarkable woman standing aloofly on the edge of adulthood. But while Terry Zwigoff’s film is a paragon of empathy, exploring its protagonist’s many flaws without wallowing in them, Adult World employs a dubious strategy of maximizing Amy’s obnoxious exterior without cluing the viewer into her internal life. The result is a character that resembles less a person than a simulacrum of disparaging clichés about the millennial generation.
Adult World establishes several things about Amy very quickly, and bluntly: she wants to become a renowned poet, she’s determined and confident to the point of mania, and she doesn’t understand anything about the world around her. As this ham-fisted characterization suggests, screenwriter Andy Cochran isn’t interested in humanizing his protagonist, and despite Roberts’s spunky and watchable screen presence, Amy quickly devolves into a walking punchline. She spends most of Adult World tripping and falling, accidentally offending people, losing cars and ineptly navigating public transportation systems, and aggressively stalking her favorite poet. That poet’s name is Rat Billings, and as played by John Cusack, he’s Amy’s vicious and miserly opposite: Retreating from the world just as Amy is bullishly entering it, he spends the majority of the film either evading her or degrading her. Though he eventually enters a half-hearted mentorship position, he remains Adult World’s de facto villain, if only because he makes Amy so much more likeable by comparison.
Though the relationship between Amy and Billings is the film’s primary focus, Adult World’s strengths lie in its side characters and plot tangents, such as Rubia (Armando Riesco), an amiable but tough transgender woman who frequents the store and develops a tenuous friendship with Amy. The character was clearly written for cheap laughs, but Riesco shades and deepens the character via smart downplaying of big scenes. His Rubia is a calm, keenly observant woman simultaneously baffled, amused, and irritated by the obnoxious girl who’s literally arrived at her doorstep, and as their relationship deepens, so does Riesco’s characterization. Rubia is one of the few people in Adult World who feels authentic and relatable, which is why the film’s abandonment of her in favor of a milquetoast love interest (Evan Peters) for Amy feels so unfair. There’s a film somewhere in here about Rubia and Amy, and it’s a good one, but it’s not the film Coffey and Cochran are interested in making, which is a genuine shame.