Tribeca 2013 Review: ADULT WORLD, An Obnoxious, Self-Consciously Quirky Would-Be Comedy

Like most other festivals, the Tribeca Film Festival is filled with films good, bad, and mediocre, but the nadir of my cinematic experiences here so far is certainly Scott Coffey's Adult World, a would-be comedy and self-described "satire" that is as grating and obnoxious as the performance by Emma Roberts at its center. There's hardly an actual human character to be found here; it's practically all broad caricature with people reduced to single character traits. There is exactly one redeeming facet to this film which saves it from being completely unbearable, but I'll elaborate on that later.

Adult World introduces us to its heroine Amy (Emma Roberts) in its opening scene - a nod to Harold and Maude - in which, after sighing to her Sylvia Plath poster, she tries to kill herself by sticking her head in an oven. After rejecting this method as "suicidal plagiarism," she resorts to putting a plastic bag over her head. We then backtrack to a year earlier, right after Amy graduates from college. An ambitious aspiring poet, full of lofty literary ambitions, she furiously dashes off poems which she mails to the most prestigious publications she can think of - The New Yorker, Harper's, etc. - and is promptly rejected by all of them. When her sympathetic and supportive parents nevertheless declare that they will no longer support her literary non-career, Amy moves out of her parents' house in a fit of dramatic pique. 

Faced with mounting student loan debts and desperate for work, and with failed poets faring poorly in today's job market, she eventually accepts a job at Adult World, a local sex shop and porn video store. The film tries to get around the inescapable fact that adult video stores are more or less an anachronism in this day and age by positing it as some sort of hipster vintage trend, akin to collecting vinyl records and cassette tapes. It's an idea that falls flat, like just about every other idea in this film. The store is run by a frisky elderly couple (Cloris Leachman and John Collum) and Alex (Evan Peters), a handsome young store manager. No prizes for guessing that he will be a potential love interest for Amy. This quirky menagerie is completed by Rubia (Armando Riesco), a feisty transvestite whom Amy temporarily rooms with, not having her own apartment.

Amy soon runs into her poetry idol, Rat Billings (John Cusack), a reclusive Charles Bukowski-like punk poet long past his prime who spends most of his days drinking. But to the self-deluded Amy, Rat represents the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Amy relentlessly stalks Rat and wears him down enough so that he reluctantly agrees to read her poems and serve as a mentor to this seemingly borderline psychotic young woman. Amy, however, has a few hard lessons to learn about whether she is truly as talented as she thinks she is.

The main problem with Adult World is that it is centered on such a delusional and off-putting character as Amy, whose self-conscious hipster ennui verges on the offensive; she's the type of person who describes using public transportation as "like being in Mogadishu." It doesn't help that Emma Roberts' apparent directive was to portray the most annoying person alive. This renders most of the situations she gets herself in to be almost distressingly unfunny, and in some cases, especially one scene in which Amy tarts herself up and attempts to drunkenly seduce Rat, simply embarrassing. Adult World has next to nothing to say about art, poetry, growing up, or any of the subjects it raises. It is an aggressively superficial movie, one which is content on remaining strictly on the surface level.

The one redeeming factor I mentioned earlier, the only thing that keeps Adult World from being a complete waste of time, is John Cusack as the poet Rat Billings. He is a refreshingly understated, acerbic presence, who seems to be from a completely different film altogether. Probably a much better one. Cusack nails the world-weariness and sharp wit of his character, and he hints at the far more accomplished film Adult World could have been, were it based on realistically human characters, rather than being a contrived quirk-fest.

Adult World screens on April 26 at 9:30pm and April 28 at 10pm. For more information, visit the Tribeca Film Festival website.

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  • ColinJ

    It's kind of amazing how John Cusack can be so effortlessly likeable onscreen when he's such a self-serious bore in real life.

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