The very first scene of “Adult World” should immediately set off warning bells. It’s a glimpse of heroine Amy (Emma Roberts) as she contemplates suicide in much the same way someone goes about stacking bills; without weight, as if it’s something of an eternal hassle. Except her worried countenance and the Sylvia Plath poster on the wall suggests she’s being serious, and that this is supposed to be mildly funny that someone is sweating the details of suicide, even though this character already looks as if she’s not taking this seriously. It’s a confused way to introduce the audience to a character, as both suicidal and half-hearted. If she’s tossing around the idea of suicide, she’s got to be despondent. If she’s treating it like she’s flipping through a circular, there’s got to be a deeper existential despair, one that “Adult World” doesn’t hint at.
Flashing back to a year earlier, we see Amy living with her family, trying to maintain enthusiasm as she sends repeated literary magazine submissions through the mail while ignoring mounting student loans and unemployment. Amy fancies herself a writer despite not taking drugs, having never traveled, and apparently still carrying her V-card into a post-collegiate existence. Pressed by her supportive folks, Amy decides to finally pursue the job market: despite a major in poetry, it’s hard to believe that someone can go four years in college and be so tone deaf to the need for actual real-world employment.
That sort of contrivance is par for the course in this film, which announces early and often that whatever dramatic steps it intends to take, it is first and foremost a “comedy.” When Amy finally does find employment that suits her, she grabs the Help Wanted sign in the front window, marches in, engages in some listless fall-down slapstick when she learns the very nature of the place, and ends up running out back to her car, still holding the Help Wanted sign. What causes this implausible chain of events? This, of course, is Adult World, the local adult bookstore that apparently startles Amy enough to flee. And the film never truly seizes any opportunities, it must be said, to explore just why she’s so frigid and judgmental when it comes to sex.
Amy tends to collapse under a certain level of pressure, so when her parents double down on the concern, she flees to the only place she knows, an apartment of cross-dressing Adult World customer Rubia. With a sly combination of swagger and subtlety, Armando Riesco gives this character, a pot head prostitute with expertise in makeup, a full backstory, but the film simply won’t communicate, and it becomes actively painful when “Adult World” keeps inorganically lunging back towards Rubia for a cheap joke. Similar treatment is given to Amy’s conveniently cute co-worker Alex (Evan Peters), inexplicably turning the antiquated Adult World into an excellent place to develop connections. When Amy discovers that Josh’s unrealistically big apartment houses his own artwork, you begin to actively hate Amy for her good fortune, and her continued selfish ditziness.
In search of a mentor, Amy pursues a published poet who happens to live in the general area (upstate New York has never felt so small). In a showcase role of sorts, a grumpy John Cusack brings some good humor to Rat Billings, an alcoholic jerkoff who inexplicably acts hostile to the cute teenage girl suddenly worshipping at his feet. Billings, who lives alone for good reason, lounges around in natty sweaters and mutters insults while interacting with the plucky Amy, but it seems clear that one way or another, he’s going to show her the light. The film flirts with Billings being more of a jerk, but as soon as Cusack makes his hero’s entrance, it’s clear that he’ll be one hundred percent redeemable.
Roberts is an agreeable presence in other films, but given the lead, she can’t seem to balance her comedic and dramatic instincts. She plays Amy as something of a spaz, but her affectations feel like sketch comedy stylings, and she fails to illustrate exactly what makes this character tick. Skilled actresses can create bipolar characters capable of mood swings, diverse creations that contain multitudes. Roberts, however, seems to be creating a new, less likable characterization for each scene, over- or underplaying it for maximum effect. The unfortunate truth is that it’s her movie, and we’re being held hostage waiting for the light to go on inside Amy’s head. Dramatically, she’s going to have her cake and eat it too, the center of the film’s dismissive comedy and its salvation as well. Wanting to create a leading character worth rooting for, and experiencing the schadenfreude that comes from her failure, is a complex balancing act, one that “Adult World” simply cannot pull off. [D+]