Film Review: Adult World

Very droll and affecting comic study of a poet wannabe who wants to make it in—literally—the worst way.

Amy (Emma Roberts) is stuck in wintry Syracuse, New York, a recent college graduate riddled with student debt and frustrated that she’s still a virgin. However, her primary aim in life is not to be financially free or deflowered, but to become a successful, published poet. Nothing but rejection letters come her way, so she is forced to take a job at the store “Adult World,” purveying porn to the locals. The place is very mom and pop-run (by Cloris Leachman and John Cullum), and there Amy meets Alex (Evan Peters), its likeable manager, and Rubia (Armando Riesco), a feisty transvestite. When Amy also encounters her poet idol Rat Billings (John Cusack), himself eking out an existence in town by teaching and doing the odd reading, she focuses upon him as her salvation and determines to have him as her mentor.

Andy Cochran's script for Adult World, by turns literate and quirky, and sharply observant throughout, provides the amiable fuel for this funny, endearing study of youthful aspiration. He's obviously no stranger to poetry—good and bad—and comes up with some truly awful stuff for poor, over-enthusiastic and misguided Amy (like "a vulva of shattered oblivion"). Scott Coffey directs with an affectionately loose hand, giving full value to the writing as well as the strong, convincing performances. There's a good sense of place, with eccentric human interaction providing the communal warmth which allays the bleakly cold ambiance of the town, and Adult World itself is a comic fount and the coziest porn palace imaginable (with Hawaiian music as a ubiquitous if singular background on the soundtrack). The classic 1960s song "White Bird," by It's a Beautiful Day, is also aptly used here.

Roberts throws her petite self into her role and is highly affecting, even as she wails, "I'm running out of time: I can't be a wunderkind past 22!" She does all the wrong things, be it nastily condescend to the store and Alex (whom she doesn't know is in love with her), or tart herself up with Rubia's help for a horrendously failed seduction scene with Rat that is excruciating yet moving ("I just wanna smash your head open and take everything in there!"). Cusack is compellingly mean, yet wise, with her, and gets the lion's share of good lines: "Fame is your generation's Black Plague"; "S.A.T.'s don't mean shit—that's like believing in Scientology"; "Protégé? I haven't heard that word sober, with my pants on, in a long time." Although he tells Amy, "You're dumb, but not stupid," he also says, "Culture around us is disintegrating, but you don't have to be a part of it if you stand against the tide, and that is no small thing. You'll always be a hyena." He delivers these and other retorts with a smoothly professional grace that reaffirms his now-veteran acting chops and makes you want to see him more prominently featured in meaningful productions.

Angelic-faced Peters is also very good and droll in the kind of role Cusack easily played in his youth, describing the store's "Dewey decimal" system of organizing the merchandise as SPARFS ("Sexual preference, age, race, fetish, size") and satirically rationalizing a cop's patronage of the store to horrified feminist Amy. Riesco nicely underplays, and Reed Birney and Catherine Lloyd Burns have some good moments as Amy’s worried parents. More, however, could have been done with Leachman and Cullum, two potentially hilarious old-timers obviously rarin' to go in the smut den, but who seem to disappear completely early on.