Everyone wants to be commended for their work. One of the inalienable facets of the American education system, and one that’s stirred up a fair amount of criticism in recent years, is a focus on numbers as an end-all. A high GPA, strong ACT scores and a large amount of course credits are valued above all else in high schools and colleges, to the point where students actively compete to see who can score highest. The C, once meant to imply an average score, is no longer acceptable – only the golden A will do. The system’s critics claim that boiling education down to numbers is really missing the point, and that all the A’s and 36’s can’t help students if reaching those targets prevents them from understanding the purpose behind their education or, worse, deluding themselves into believing that high scores are enough to guarantee career success.
Amy (Emma Roberts), the protagonist of Scott Coffey’s scattershot dark comedy Adult World, is exactly the kind of self-deluded, superficial thinker with whom opponents of the numbers-focused education system would rest their case. Overly praised and pampered with high grades and awards, Amy has become infatuated with the idea that she’s the voice of her generation. In her eyes, she’s imbued with such innate poetic skill that no amount of rejection will prevent her from reaching the fame she’s entitled to. Roberts’ shrill, high-strung vocal work completes the image of Amy as a poseur, desperate to attain a fame she lacks the talent to back up. “But I’m inspired,” she plaintively explains to her dad when he tells her she’ll need to find an actual job to pay off massive college debts. It’s a mantra that she leans on heavily, and one she’s heard far too often to see the flaws in. So when waiting around for someone to see her talent leads nowhere, and she’s confronted with the idea that she may not be all that gifted after all, it’s a brutal wake-up call.
A half-hearted job hunt leads the suddenly insecure Amy to erotic book store Adult World, where she encounters a host of interesting characters, from good-natured store manager Alex (Evan Peters) to sharp-tongued transvestite Rubia (Armando Riesco). Before long, she’s starting to branch out, but all the while still clinging to delusions of grandeur. Spouting truly awful verses beneath a poster of Sylvia Plath (ironically, her poetic role model), she’s so committed to the fantasy of being discovered that she consciously pushes away her friends’ and family’s attempts to remove her blinders. Amy’s situation only grows more dire when she becomes the assistant to Rat Billings (John Cusack), a former punk poet baffled and irritated by his inability to shake her.
It’s a decent premise for a film, and screenwriter Andy Cochran infuses Adult World with some moments of surprising wit, particularly involving Cusack’s poet, that are entertainingly acerbic. Unfortunately, Roberts doesn’t have the charisma to make the painfully self-obsessed Amy even remotely likeable, and Cochran’s script also makes some serious mistakes with her character’s development. When Amy works at the book store and interacts with Alex and the customers, the quirkiness is cute. When Rat enters the picture, however, Roberts dials the immaturity and flightiness up to near-psychotic levels. Not so cute.
Roberts isn’t the most dynamic lead actress, but the issue lies more with Cochran’s characterization. We’re meant to like Amy despite her relentlessly self-centered behavior and baffling neuroses, which is already a lot to ask. But the odd personality shifts Amy undergoes make it even more difficult to identify with her.
This issue with Roberts’s character is mirrored throughout the rest of Adult World. Like Roberts, the film is sometimes enjoyable but also grates more often than it should. The humor is all over the place, with Cusack’s deadpan delivery working a lot better than ickier gags, like Adult World’s “sticky return policy” or a scene when Rubia makes Amy over as a vampish lady of the night. Coffey does a just-about-serviceable job behind the camera, but scenes are often noticeably disconnected from one another. One of Adult World‘s most serious shortcomings is its failure to settle into any sort of groove; unlike Coffey’s debut, Ellie Parker, the film lacks all but the most basic of flow or narrative pull.
Roberts is helped out by a decent supporting cast. Peters shares strong chemistry with the actress and does some nifty character work, while Riesco succeeds in making the loud-mouthed Rubia surprisingly interesting. Best of all is Cusack, whose strong comic timing elevates every scene he’s in. Though Rat is shockingly terrible to Amy, Cusack slowly reveals the deeper motives behind his actions in a way that both redeems his character and almost makes Adult World compelling (for a few minutes, anyway). Unfortunately, Cochran’s script isn’t brave enough to follow through and give Amy the hard truths she needs to hear.
Between Roberts’ unlikeable, melodramatic lead and Cochran’s thin script, Adult World never comes together to weave a genuinely interesting or enjoyable story. The film sets Amy up for grand revelations about her own abilities, but the script isn’t ballsy enough to carve out anything less than an undeserved feel-good ending. It never commits to a genre, and the tonal uncertainty is extremely frustrating. That’s a real shame when you consider the number of young adults like Amy currently tying themselves to careers they’re woefully unprepared for. Adult World may begin to point out the existence of such individuals, but it stops short of saying anything useful about or to them.
Ultimately, the film dismisses its bigger ideas about the dangers of liberal arts and self-delusion, instead course-correcting into dull tropes like first love and happy coincidence, certainly story points more palatable to the general public. What that decision really does, however, is rob Adult World of any bite or individuality that it could have possessed.
There are flashes of wit in this quirky comedy, but thin characterization and by-the-numbers plotting lead Adult World to slip into tonally haphazard tedium.