On the surface, Adult World is a cute, conventional coming-of-age story about a young woman with highbrow creative ambitions who learns about life and love after taking a job at an adult-video store. An electric current thrums beneath that tame façade, however, embodied in two of the most arrestingly unhinged performances—given the context—in recent memory. At times, both Emma Roberts and John Cusack appear to be actively trying to subvert the movie’s intentions, as if they could transform it into something closer to The King Of Comedy by sheer force of will. In the end, banality triumphs, but watching them give it their best shot, most likely with the support of director Scott Coffey (Ellie Parker), is a gas.
One of the movie’s charms is its stubborn insistence that anachronisms like aspiring poets and brick-and-mortar adult-video stores still exist. (A self-conscious line of dialogue about porn allegedly unavailable online strives to justify the latter.) Amy (Roberts), a recent college graduate, has exhausted her parents’ bank account and patience submitting her poems to various journals and reviews, most of which charge a reading fee. Forced to get a part-time job, she spots a “help wanted” sign in a shop window and heads in to apply before she realizes the store is called Adult World. Working there, Amy gradually learns that perverts are people, too, and also develops an increasingly flirtatious relationship with shyly sweet Alex (Evan Peters), one of the other clerks. But these life lessons are impeded by her obsession with the once-famous poet Rat Billings (Cusack), who becomes Amy’s extremely reluctant, semi-hostile mentor.
Every scene featuring Amy and Rat together is a giddy marvel of kinetic energy, with Roberts and Cusack seemingly in competition to determine which of them can make their character more unsympathetic. Cusack plays Rat as a sullen curmudgeon who resents any reminder of the passion he once felt for poetry; many of his lines appear to have been at least semi-improvised, and he treats Amy the way celebrities must secretly want to treat their most pushy, annoying fans. Roberts, heretofore best known for her famous relatives (dad Eric, aunt Julia) and for being adorable on Nickelodeon, matches him move for move, transforming Amy into a hyperactive sycophant without an ounce of self-awareness. A scene in which Amy attempts to seduce Rat reaches magnificent heights of queasy comedy (“What, do you think I’m ugly or something?” “No, no. I think you’re psychotic”), all while remaining fundamentally truthful to the likely dynamic between a deeply confused young woman and a burned-out, middle-aged writer.
Coffey began his career as an actor—he's worked repeatedly with David Lynch, most notably as one of the humanoid rabbits in Inland Empire—and it’s a safe bet that he encouraged Roberts’ and Cusack’s freewheeling recklessness. Alas, the rest of Adult World, which was written by Andy Cochran, isn’t nearly so memorable. Amy’s adventures at the porn shop lack the sense of genuine discomfort they require to serve as a useful counterpoint to her creative delusions, and Alex, her new paramour, is so gosh-darn nice that he verges on dull. Considerable screen time is squandered on a transvestite (Armando Riesco) whose sole function is to keep Amy’s spirits up—a sorry cliché of a role that really needs to be permanently retired. Nor does the film remotely earn its improbably happy ending. Still, there’s so much vivid, irrepressible life shoving through the narrative’s seams that its structural defects can be forgiven, or at least largely ignored. Think of it like porn: If the sex scenes are hot, the rest doesn’t much matter.