In a moment of crisis late in Adult World, 22-year-old protagonist Amy finds herself flinging books at her mentor and screaming: “I AM SPECIAL! I GOT GOOD GRADES! I SCORED IN THE 97TH PERCENTILE ON MY SAT’S, THANK YOU VERY MUCH!” The tantrum is silly in the utmost, but it’s not far off its mark. Director Scott Coffey’s film about millennial postgrad entitlement takes aim at young artists’ idea that success is something the world owes them for their talent.
Andy Cochran’s script, about an aspiring writer who struggles to start a career after being released from the cozy womb of collegiate life, is based on a well-documented phenomenon, riding the wave of countless think pieces in the last several years (TIME’s “The Me Me Me Generation,” etc). While Adult World contains moments of clever fun, its implausibly naive heroine weakens the movie’s impact. It tries to ride the line between the uncomfortable edginess of Lena Dunham’s Girls and the vivacity of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, and ends up somewhere blandly in the middle. But much like its dogged, earnest central character, Adult World earns an A for effort.
The movie opens with Amy (Emma Roberts) planning a suicide, designating her notebook “for posthumous publication” and staring in the mirror at her lipstick and Sylvia Plath poster. She is the kind of person who, with a fresh BA in poetry, takes a rejection from the New Yorker as a crippling blow. After her parents decide that they can no longer subsidize her poetry career, Amy is forced to pursue employment. She ends up working at a porn shop— the wryly titled “Adult World.”
Roberts’ performance is spirited, but the character’s behavior is dubious from the start. While it’s true that there are scads of young people with ill-advised creative writing degrees, most of them have some sense that their postgrad game plan should consist of more than submitting to prestigious journals and awaiting inevitable fame. And for a character that aims to skewer millenials, Amy is surprisingly old school— she scans the classifieds with a red pen rather than browsing Craigslist, and scribbles in notebooks rather than updating her Tumblr. When she gushes that she “really feels a lot” and “wants to speak for all the people that suffer,” she seems to embody more the idea of the entitled young artist rather than a breathing human being. Amy is the straw (wo)man that those Slate pieces are about, and it makes it a lot easier to laugh at her than it is to relate.
Other elements work better. Amy’s “bohemian” roommates provide a few stellar one-liners. The sex shop conceit is interesting, and allows virginal Amy to do some tame erotic exploring (though I wish the theme were more central. Often it seems she could be working at any small book store). Visually, Coffey makes a great transition from the inspiring spires of the university to the discouraging grays of upstate New York suburbia. His unobtrusive style puts the spotlight on the script and the actors— and so the best parts of Adult World happen whenever John Cusack is onscreen, playing Amy’s reluctant poet-mentor, Rat Billings.
Cusack channels recent Bill Murray in his performance as an apathetic curmudgeon. He provides a much-needed foil to Amy’s energy. When she effuses that Billings’ work “speaks to an entire generation,” he responds, “No, no it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean anything.” After Amy throws herself at him for the chance to be his protégé, he decides to take her on— as a maid. Billings is the movie’s only spot of nuance or ambiguity, and he helps land Amy in a better spot less predictably than one might think.
The film winds its way to a satisfying conclusion that allows Amy to realize that she cares more about being published than about making good things for their own sake— a salient point for this generation of artists, to be sure. But one can’t help but feel that it took 80 long minutes for Amy to get a clue. It seems to me that the problem is one of artistic condescension. Cochran, a young first-time screenwriter, positions himself, the viewer, and the leading lady too far above Amy’s problems to make them sting. Girls works because for all that Lena Dunham pokes fun at, it’s clear that Hannah Horvath is a self she has lived in. Frances Ha was co-written by its star, Greta Gerwig, and she infuses the character with a grounded humanity even in her flighty lifestyle.
Adult World, for all the fun it offers, is too mean to be a sincere drama and too sweet to be a satire. At one point, Rat describes Amy as follows: “She’s a good girl, but as my dad might say, she’s free of all knowledge.” It’s a good enough time to watch this spunky neophyte learn something about the world, but Adult World keeps us too removed to let us learn anything about ourselves.