Emma Roberts—daughter of Eric, niece of Julia—has really been making a go of it with her indie-movie career, to the point of taking almost the same part twice in It's Kind of a Funny Story and The Art of Getting By. In Adult World, she graduates from alluring teenage love interest to showcase role as Amy, a recent Syracuse University graduate and aspiring poet with a Hannah Horvath-y faith in the arts-career she's certain will materialize. After her parents balk at the grand or so she spends on postage and entrance fees for poetry contests (which I guess means she enters 50 or 60), she moves out in a huff and gets herself a for-now job. (As a former resident of upstate New York, by the way, I can confirm that almost no college graduate, even one in Syracuse, makes the want ads her primary source of leads.)
She finally finds a job at a porn shop whose name gives the movie's title its double meaning. Indie comedies, perhaps jealous over the big laughs the topic got in Clerks, are often fascinated by pornography, yet, for the most part, vaguely clueless about what could be funny about it beyond, you know, tee-hee, naked people. Here, the Adult World set is weirdly underdressed; it looks more like a failing consignment shop than whatever kind of sex store it's supposed to be (a video rental place that sells novelties? A sex-positive adult boutique? Purveyor of vintage erotica? The movie never really makes it clear. Again: even in Syracuse—especially in Syracuse—I'm guessing there would be more actual pornography in a pornography store).
But the movie's lack of interest is a blessing in disguise, leaving the porn shop as sidebar to the relationship between Amy and Rat Billings (John Cusack), a local poet she idolizes. The movie places a broad performance from Roberts against Cusack's wry, morose stillness, and they're very funny together. As she proved in the underseen Nancy Drew, Roberts has a knack for playing overachievers, and Amy overachieves at overachieving ("I feel a lot," she says by way of her poetic muse). Roberts's broadness in the film's early moments means we can actually watch Amy mature, and Cusack doesn't turn Rat into a secret softie.
The other characters, like the poor man's Jesse Eisenberg of a love interest, aren't distinctive enough to make this a distaff Adventureland. Yet whenever Adult World threatens to turn especially cutesy or smarmy, it circumvents its worst indie instincts. At first, it looks like Amy is going to get a sassy drag queen mentor and roommate (Armando Riesco), until she mentions that she doesn't particularly like having Amy as a guest. From a writing point of view, I wish the movie didn't end with Amy and Rat explaining each other's lessons, but I have to say, I liked watching their odd little advice-swap. Jesse Hassenger
Screens tonight and Sunday. More info here.