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.
A comedy about Canadian lowlifes played by Pauls Rudd and Giamatti coming down to NYC at Christmas to peddle trees sounds like a twee Sundance entry circa Happy Texas and/or something Rudd would've starred in during that post-Clueless/pre 40-Year-Old Virgin decade. But if you listen to the sound design of Almost Christmas, you might make out the style of Junebug writer-director Phil Morrison: he's still paying special attention to overheard conversations and ambient near-silence, even if the movie is more of an amusing trifle than a striking slice of life.
Giamatti's irritable ex-con gets out of prison to find out that his wife has told their young daughter he's dead, a sorta-joke screenwriter Melissa James Gibson likes so much that she repeats it five or six times. His wife's new boyfriend, played by Rudd, agrees to take him on his yearly tree-selling pilgrimage—a get-briefly-slightly-rich-semi-quick scheme. The pair's quasi-in-law relationship is just one aspect of Almost Christmas that parallels fellow Tribeca feature Prince Avalanche, another uneasy-buddy/menial-labor comedy with Rudd. His Avalanche character has more depth, but he does get some of the biggest laughs here with his easygoing enthusiasm. (On his martial-arts training: "Guess which kind of mythology it's based on. Norse!")
With reworked instrumentals of holiday tunes serving (and sometimes over-serving) as a score, Almost Christmas has an agreeable Charlie Brown vibe. It's always an odd fit to watch a Christmas movie in springtime, but I assume this one made the Tribeca cut because it gets its New York bona fides right—and I'm not just saying that because about three quarters of it takes place in my neighborhood; I'm also saying that because at one point it features Santa-Con revelers carousing and hurling, uncommented upon, in the background. These details make it compatible with Morrison's considerable skills, but I left Almost Christmas unsure of why he wanted to make it. He keeps the movie from going full indie-comedy autopilot but doesn't steer it too far afield, either. Jesse Hassenger
Screens Sunday. More info here.
How is human intelligence any different than artificial intelligence, given that both are products of an unbelievably complex "programming"—of culture and history for the former, a series of codes for the other. The morality behind A.I. drives The Machine, an ambitious and intriguing sci-fi film that at times seems forced into conventionality.
Toby Stephens stars as a brilliant programmer who works for the military—the old song and dance about an army of super-soldier robots—while seeking to steer the technology toward the rehabilitation of veterans and the mentally challenged. A breakthrough comes when his partner dies, and her mind and likeness are used as the basis for a new machine that could be programmed to either peaceful or destructive ends. There are parallels with any wartime atrocity where soldiers are "programmed" to disregard their own morals in favor of following orders.
This is where The Machine is at its most intriguing, marrying the philosophical musings of Solaris with, unfortunately, the climax of any generic action flick. There's plenty to recommend it, starting with a brilliant and multifaceted performance by Caity Lotz, but when you start by questioning the nature of man, ending with a barrage of gunfire feels like a letdown. Ryan Vlastelica
Screens Saturday. More info here.
Clark Gregg may be the picture of go-getter competence as Agent Coulson in The Avengers and its brethren (and soon to be revived, apparently, if Joss Whedon's S.H.I.E.L.D pilot makes it to next fall), but his work as a writer-director goes darker. His first feature adapted the blackly comic (and smugly black) Chuck Palahniuk novel Choke, with Sam Rockwell in the lead and Gregg himself in a supporting role. For his follow-up, he's swapped places with Rockwell, who appears briefly as a smarmy rival to Gregg's Howard Holloway, a desperate former child actor turned child-actor-agent. As with most movies about desperate Hollywood types, Trust Me takes place over just 36 hours or so, as Howard angles to represent up-and-comer Lydia (Saxon Sharbino) and secure her a place in a Harry Potter-ish film franchise.
At first, Trust Me looks and sounds like a shallow satire of Hollywood hustle, but it swerves away from cheap shots relatively early, and Howard's negotiations have some real tension. But that's not the last of its surprises, and the later ones aren't so pleasurable: as the movie gets twistier and more serious, it borders on self-pity. Also, I'm sorry and frankly kind of confused to report that Sharbino is a weak link: she's supposed to be a natural but her off-script savvy never sounds convincing; her low, sardonic whisper sounds like Chloe Moretz at her most stilted. It's nice to hear Amanda Peet, playing Howard's neighbor and crush, spit out some snappy dialogue for the first time in a while, and Gregg does nice work as a hustler unsure about how much of jerk he can or should be. I don't begrudge Trust Me's lack of redemptive uplift, but I wouldn't mind Gregg trying his hand at something that wants to be as much fun as some of this movie is. Jesse Hassenger
Screens Sunday. More info here.