In Scott Coffey’s Adult World, former Nickelodeon star Emma Roberts takes on the difficult task of convincing an audience to root for an obnoxious, self-obsessed aspiring poet, and doesn’t quite stick the landing. She plays 22-year-old Amy, introduced to the audience in the midst of a half-hearted suicide attempt. Staring listlessly at a poster of Sylvia Plath, Amy first sticks her head inside of an oven, then thinks better of that “suicidal plagiarism,” opting instead to pull a plastic bag loosely over her head. This is a fitting first introduction to our heroine: melodramatic and a little ridiculous. She’s the kind of girl who relishes in her white, hipster, middle-class ennui, describing riding a city bus as “like being in Mogadishu.”
The film then flashes back a year. After Amy’s parents decide that they “can’t afford to subsidize” her poetry career anymore and tell her that she needs to grow up, the loan-saddled college grad moves out of their home. Hurt by their lack of faith in her, she pursues a literary career by stalking her favorite living poet, Rat Billings (John Cusack), and takes a job at an adult video store managed by a cute, affable twentysomething male (Evan Peters) with the words “love interest” practically tattooed to his forehead. There are a few comic scenes where the virginal Amy squirms in the presence of dildos and “sticky DVD returns,” but from the oversexed store owner played by Cloris Leachman, to the display of vibrators that Amy clumsily sends crashing to the ground when she first enters Adult World, the humor is as broad as a football field.
Adult World doesn’t quite fit the bill of a dark comedy, as it’s neither uproariously funny nor does it carry much dramatic import. Most of the time, as it leaps from broad slapstick to bleak, unironic melodrama, it’s difficult to tell what exactly it’s going for. But its bewildering atonality is at least in keeping with Roberts’s erratic performance. The world of the film, all contrived situations and caricatured people, revolves around Amy, who’s played by Roberts without the sort of charm that might have been redeeming in another actress’s hands; too often she settles for garish overstatement when a scene calls for nuance.
There are some bright spots, including a great pop score and a stellar but all-too-brief supporting performance from Puerto Rican actor Armando Riesco, who plays a transwoman named Rubia who inexplicably befriends Amy. Where other actors might have played Rubia for laughs, as a “man in a dress,” Riesco manages to find humor in the character that doesn’t rely either on gendered or racial stereotypes, creating a character that, despite too-few lines, feels more fully realized than anyone else on screen. That said, Cusack is also in top form as Rat Billings, the professor and former literary wunderkind who reluctantly agrees to take Amy on as his protégé. The curmudgeonly, alcoholic artiste is the perfect cameo for Cusack, as he speaks almost entirely in witty, sarcastic one-liners, ultimately delivering the film’s crucial message: that the quest for fame is “this generation’s Black Plague,” and “not everyone is talented.”
It’s a refreshing direction for the film to go, to ultimately force its lead character to accept that maybe she isn’t destined to be the next Zadie Smith, the next anything, that she’s not actually a good writer at all. But while Adult World makes moves toward being different by hinting at an ending where Amy doesn’t get the glittering literary accolades and adoration she craves and chooses a new path, its final act takes a turn for the annoyingly predictable as Amy comes out on top in spite of every failure that’s come before. It may be uplifting, but it isn’t in keeping with the sort of “adult world” we’ve been led to believe she’s finally entered. Ultimately, what we’re left with is a fairy tale.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 17—27. For more information click here.