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Review: Adult World (2014)

Adult World (2014)

Directed by: Scott Coffey

Premise: An aspiring poet (Emma Roberts) graduates from college and struggles to find work. She takes a clerk job at an adult novelty shop while she stalks a reclusive poet (John Cusack) in an attempt to convince him to take her on as an apprentice.

What Works: Emma Roberts has appeared in a variety of movies from major studio comedies like We’re the Millers to horror films such as Scream 4, and indie titles like Palo Alto. Roberts’ performances have been uneven, sometimes due to poor matches between the actress and the material, but with Adult World Emma Roberts proves herself. The film requires Roberts to show considerable range, with moments of drama and comedy, and her character in Adult World is not flattering. Playing an unlikeable role is tricky for actors; creative people are typically vain and want the audience’s approval and so characters who are neither admirable nor villainously cool can be a challenge to play. Emma Roberts’ character in Adult World is a young woman who has recently graduated from college with a degree in English and like most young writers she is full of herself and has expectations of greatness. Roberts and the filmmakers capture that naivety and misplaced pride and manage to strike a balance between obnoxiousness and empathy. Out of options and out of money, Roberts’ character begrudgingly takes a clerk job at a porn shop. At the same time she discovers that one of her favorite poets, played by John Cusack, lives nearby and she harasses him into taking her on as a sort-of assistant. Cusack’s character is the typical movie version of a poet—a bitter and cynical recluse who treats the rest of the world and his new protégé with contempt. However, Cusack does the role very well and the script gives him a lot of mean but funny bits of dialogue. The part is also rewarding for longtime fans of Cusack since the part has several allusions to the actor’s 1985 film Better Off Dead. As Roberts’ character works at her low pay, dead end job and is strung along by her mentor, a tension emerges between her idealistic aspirations and the realities of her life. In this regard, Adult World has something to say about being a young person, particularly in today’s economy, and the filmmakers even get a little subversive in that they refuse to validate the central character’s sense of entitlement.

What Doesn’t: Adult World does not go quite as far as it could with its characters, scenarios, and themes. For example, Roberts’ character takes a job at a porn shop but the filmmakers miss the opportunity to explore her interactions with the customers. There is also the very obvious matter of sexuality, commerce, and exploitation, which is dealt with to some degree, but the filmmakers don’t tie it into the lead character’s artistic aspirations as well as they could. The scenario of Adult World isn’t quite cliché but it is familiar. The Millennial lead character is reminiscent of Lena Dunham’s role on the television series Girls, inasmuch as she is an aspiring writer who is overburdened by a sense of privilege and expectations of greatness. The film is the story of Roberts’ character discovering that the world isn’t necessarily interested in what she has to say. This is not a uniquely Millennial problem; the themes of Adult World and stories like it go back at least as far as Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The trouble with the familiarity of Adult World is that the audience is likely to be ahead of Emma Roberts’ character right from the start. Within her first few scenes we recognize her naivety and know what it is that she needs to figure out about life and about herself and so the movie is a process of waiting for her to catch up. The epiphany that she eventually comes to is fairly obvious and her trials and humiliations have a superficial payoff.

DVD extras: Deleted scenes and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Adult World is a movie that could have been great but is merely good. That’s enough to merit a recommendation. Adult World is a pretty standard coming of age tale but has enough bite to distinguish the film from similar titles.

Episode: #523 (January 4, 2015)