by Hope Madden
“Fame is your generation’s Black Plague.” So says Rat Billings (John Cusack), world-wearied poet and reluctant mentor to naïve college grad and would-be poet, Amy (Emma Roberts).
Rat has lots of good lines – he is a poet, after all – about the strange era of newly formed adults who grew up working toward fame for fame’s sake. “Generation Mundane” he calls them.
Unbeknownst to Amy, she herself fits that description, and that irony is at the heart of the bright indie comedy Adult World. The chemistry at the heart of the film belongs to Roberts and Cusack.
When Roberts’s Amy leaves the nest 90K in college debt with no marketable skill (her degree is in poetry, after all), she takes a job at an old style porn shop. There, a unique and fascinating world revolves around her, but she’s too busy “feeling, deeply feeling” to notice. Which is, of course, the problem with her artistry – she’s trying to write when she has refused to live, so what could she have to write about?
We watch as Amy refuses to participate in life, insulated from the world by her misguided, socially-instilled belief in her own specialness. Thankfully, director Scott Coffey’s film – scripted with refreshing self-deprecation by Andy Cochran – is rarely too overt with its theme. Sometimes, sure, and you would never call the film exactly subtle. But it has some real freshness to offer instead.
While the cast on the whole is quite solid, Roberts really hits high gear in scenes with Cusack. When these characters are together we get to see each at his or her most potent. Films rarely offer such undiluted presences. Neither actor is afraid to embrace what is unlikeable about their own character, and their scenes together are a kind of joyous celebration of flaws. A giddy artistic energy flows between the two performers that is a blast to watch.
Not every pairing goes as well. Amy’s onscreen love interest is played by Roberts’s offscreen love (and American Horror Story co-star) Evan Peters. Though their romance is sweet, its course is also predictable.
Worse still, the great Cloris Leachman is underused, and Armando Riesco’s drag queen is tacked onto the story sloppily and without real meaning.
Still, much of this story rings true, and the approach taken to poke fun at Generation Mundane is clever and well-intentioned. More than anything, though, it’s great to see Cusack running on all cylinders and matched so well.