Adult World: Tribeca Review

John Cusack delivers a deliciously deadpan performance in this uneven and self-consciously quirky dark comedy.

Emma Roberts and John Cusack star in this dark comedy about a would-be poet and her reluctant mentor.

An interesting premise is executed in only sporadically effective comic fashion in Adult World, about a young woman determined to be a great poet. That her role model is Sylvia Plath indicates the dark undertones of this satirical comedy starring Emma Roberts and John Cusack which is currently unspooling at the Tribeca Film Festival. Although its star names will generate interest on VOD, Scott Coffey’s film is too self-consciously quirky to break out of the indie film glut.

Amy (Roberts) is a recent college graduate, buried in debt from student loans, who’s received a string of rejection letters from the prestigious publications to which she’s submitted her work. Getting the riot act from her frustrated parents, she’s forced to look for paid employment and winds up working as a clerk in a run-down adult bookstore owned by an older couple (John Cullum and Cloris Leachman, not given much to do).

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There she makes new friends, including Alex (Evan Peters), the friendly store manager, and Rubia (Armando Riesco), a tough-talking transvestite. But her primary attention is reserved for her idol Rat Billings (Cusack), a once celebrated, aging punk poet who’s now clearly fallen on hard times. Determined to become his protégé, Amy essentially stalks the wary, reclusive writer until he reluctantly agrees to read her work. But Rat, who responds to her desperate entreaties with barely disguised contempt, is hardly the nurturing figure she wants him to be.

Credit must be given to Andy Cochran’s screenplay for its unpredictable plot detours and frequent flashes of wit, as when, Amy, attempting to kill herself by sticking her head in an oven, mutters to herself that “this is suicidal plagiarism.” And it doesn’t shy away from spotlighting its characters’ unlikeable traits, from Amy’s self-deluded dreams of literary glory to her would-be mentor’s casual cruelty.

But the film, atmospherically shot in a wintry Syracuse, never seems to establish real momentum, lurching from one awkwardly conceived scene to another. Such intended comic highlights as when a tarted up Amy throws herself at the bemused Rat with disastrous results mainly fall flat, and the jokes involving the porn shop—it has a “sticky video return policy”—feel anachronistic in the internet era.

Roberts accentuates her character’s immaturity to the point of being grating--although to be fair, that’s essentially the point--while the nicely restrained Riesco is consistently amusing as the self-possessed Rubia. But the film’s true MVP is Cusack, delivering a wittily subtle and acerbic turn that well displays his gift for deadpan comedy. He elevates the material whenever he’s onscreen, providing hints as to the more interestingly subversive film Adult World might have been.

(Tribeca Film Festival)

Production: Tree House Pictures, Anonymous Content

Cast: Emma Roberts, John Cusack, Evan Peters, Armando Riesco, Cloris Leachman, Shannon Woodward, John Cullum, Catherine Lloyd Burns, Reed Birney

Director: Scott Coffey

Screenwriter: Andy Cochran

Producers: Justin Nappi, Manu Gargi, Kevin Turen, Alex Goldstone, Joy Gorman

Executive producers: Paul Green, Mohammed Al Turki

Director of photography: James Laxton

Editors: Gina Hirsch, David Heinz

Production designers: Jeff O’Brien, David Storm

Costume designer: Meghan Kasperlik

Composers: Dan Boeckner, BC Smith

Not rated, 97 min.