I see Emma Roberts, Evan Peters too,
There’s even John Cusack, for me and you,
And I think to myself, what a dreary schlock fest.
Emma Roberts plays a young poet, Amy, who graduates from college and finds herself thrown into some kind of sad, middle class version of the real world. Her parents refuse to pay for her to submit her terrible poems to literary magazines anymore, and so naturally she gets a job at a sex shop called Adult World, where she and the young manager (Evan Peters) make eyes at one another all day and sell vintage porn to a collection of characters, and Amy befriends a transgender woman, Rubia (Armando Riesco) who, I guess, infuses her world with some much needed color and opens her eyes to How There Are Many Different Kinds Of People In The World. Amy is obsessed with a shitty, formerly famous poet (John Cusack) who graciously allows her to clean his house in exchange for taking a look at some of her poems now and then.
The title is, I guess, supposed to make us think about how Amy herself is attempting to join the world of adults, finding the fine line between a terrible day job and mesmerizing dreams of poetry stardom. Amy, Amy, Amy, you beautiful flower, you precious Sylvia Plath loving dew drop, honey bunny, you unstable nut-job. Amy writes pretty terrible poems, I think, although we aren’t really privy much to the mechanics of her art except in how it seems to negatively affect other people. And Amy, darling little Amy, is kind of a self-centered nightmare, and I can’t actually recall her asking another character in the entire film a question about their thoughts, hopes, dreams, perceptions or motivations.
Emma Roberts is all over the place, hamming it up at one moment and trying to slip into a somber state the next. Question: When did everyone agree that Emma Roberts was a thing? When did she swoop from celebrity-adjacent obscurity, riding high on the glory of her famous aunt Julia, and demand to be taken seriously as a pretty twenty-something who wants to make money from pretending to be other, different, pretty teenagers and twenty-somethings? No one can possibly think that she’s any good, although she’s the best thing in Adult World by leaps and bounds, she’s still remarkably mannered and impossibly un-fun to watch. It is no fun to watch you do things, Emma Roberts! As perhaps her closest contemporaries, Felicity Jones can electrify the space between herself and another human being simply by leaning up against a doorframe and quietly saying a few spare words, and Emma Watson can break your heart into a thousand pieces simply by glancing down at her hands as her eyes well up with tears, but Emma Roberts seems to continually persist in a world where “being pretty” is close enough to acting. Flicking your hair behind your eye and rolling your eyes like a lunatic does not a character make.
Roberts isn’t entirely to blame, as actors are only as good as their directors. Director Scott Coffey should be maimed, for a number of reasons, but especially for wasting the delightful Cloris Leachman as the porn store owner, a role so minuscule that it could have been played by anybody, or in fact nobody, since she adds nothing and is given barely any lines, maybe her entire sub plot was cut. In fact any actor in this movie could have been replaced by any other actor in the world and it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference. People show up only to essentially disappear again, we could have done without: Amy’s dad, the porn shop owners, even Shannon Woodward as the quirky best friend is relegated to a few dismal scenes. I also want to say something about how nice it is to see Emma Roberts acting with her real life fiancé Evan Peters, but the two don’t seem to have much more chemistry than bored high-school kids trapped in detention, so, I can’t. He is kind of the one person in the movie who tries to talk some sense into her now and then, so that makes him OK in my book.
And the poor directorial decisions don’t end with stilted performances. Scenes often end without any real reason for ending, and many begin the same way. There are many scenes that don’t even really make sense, such as when Amy sees her poet idol, Rat Billings, exiting a liquor store and then she and Rubia hop on a stolen tandem bike and slooooowly, sloooowly cycle through the driving snow in the sloooowest, least interesting chase scene ever. As that poet-idol, John Cusack seems to be digging deep into whatever remained in the High Fidelity bag, the tortured artist who acts like a complete asshole for no discernible reason, just unpleasant and self-centered. The less said about the awkward attempted seduction scene between himself and Roberts, the better, as it’s a nightmare you can’t seem to wake up from. While his portrayal of a bored egomaniac may be very realistic, it isn’t necessarily good storytelling. And therein may lay the biggest problem with Adult World. The things that are entirely unrealistic, ahem tandem bike chase scene, drown out what may have initially been some very subtle musings about what it is to believe in culture and art, to boldly believe that it is possible to lead an artistic life and even to make money while doing so. Amy’s story feels familiar only in the roughest outlines, college education, piles of loans, having to get a job you don’t like in order to pay the bills — but the script is one step away from being made-for-TV worthy, a rare cocky blend of stilted dialogue and who-gives-a-crap plot, with throwaway one-dimensional characters.
I kept trying to decide if I found the transgender plot line troubling. Sometimes I did! Other times it was kind of charming and some much needed hilarity in this bizarrely stitched together film! The transgender character, Rubia (Armando Riesco), at times lacks the strength of, say, Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black, and seems to be relegated to comic relief, or bawdy hilarity, which seems very uncomfortable the longer one thinks about it. Sure, it’s important for Amy’s horizons to widen, but transgender people don’t exist to teach straights about alternative lifestyles, and too often Rubia seems to exist to liven up a dreary scene.
Adult World is just unforgivably bad. Too obsessed with being cleverly intellectual to actually draw anyone in, funny only in the dumber moments, and almost obsessively uncomfortable and uneasy. A horrible skit that just never ends, the more I think about this one the tired-er I get. So tired. The one bright ray of hope that it affords is that it’s wonderful to know that just about any ol’ script can get made in this day and age. The embarrassing thing is that many, many people slaved over this, doing their best, which still just isn’t any good. And oh, the audacity of this kind of filmmaking! Was this supposed to be the defining artistic coming of age film of our generation? Were we in desperate need of a movie about how awful it is to get a job when all you want to do is write poems all day? This story not only was told poorly, but never needed to be told at all, and that is nigh on unforgivable when the world still breathes excitement and everywhere you look there’s a thousand experiences lingering, stories untold, just below the surface of daily life.
Amanda Meyncke lives in Los Angeles, follow her on Twitter here. Or, find her email and send her a weird email, those are nice too.