A naive young poet with an inflated opinion of herself reluctantly accepts work at a sex shop while stalking her reclusive idol in Scott Coffey’s satirical, Syracuse-set coming-of-ager, “Adult World.” Coffey’s loose, casual style, tilting toward the performance-centric and improvisational — as with his 2005 debut, “Ellie Parker,” starring genius-caliber actress Naomi Watts — cannot fully accommodate the presence of former kidvid starlet Emma Roberts (“Nancy Drew”), heading an otherwise comfortable, quite excellent cast. Nevertheless, the film’s coyly titillating subject matter and John Cusack’s delicious star turn as a curmudgeonly, once-lionized poet should support a limited run.
Amy (Roberts) has somehow managed to reach 22 years of age with a college degree and little knowledge beyond an unshakeable belief in her own soon-to-be-feted genius. She writes bad, melodramatically anguished poetry under a poster of Sylvia Plath, convinced she need merely submit samplings of her oeuvre to be showered with prizes and acceptance. So fixated on ersatz suffering and imminent fame, Amy doesn’t even notice her parents’ gentle downward economic slide until they inform her they can no longer support her tortured-poetry habit: She has to get a job.
Once employed at the rather bare-bones Adult World, owned by an earthy older couple (John Cullum and an underutilized Cloris Leachman) and managed by curly-haired young Alex (an impressive Evan Peters, adding depth of understanding and empathy to his sexy-cute role), Amy remains oblivious to the scant sex toys and X-rated DVDs around her, writing self-absorbed poetry and lusting for the chance to be mentored (read: insulted) by her favorite living writer. That would be superannuated “angry” poet Rat Billings (Cusack), who is appearing at a book signing. A series of misfortunes, though, finds Amy temporarily rooming with Rubia (Armando Riesco), a caustic transgender person with a heart of gold but limited patience; Riesco turns what might have been a cliched disaster into a believable study of awkward elegance amid tackiness.
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For the most part, Coffey and scribe Andy Cochran (TV’s “Restless Virgins”) alternate scenes of Amy’s cluelessness at work, where she barely notices customers freely shoplifting, and her bold attempts to throw herself into Billings’ path; these latter sequences sometimes evoke the flavor of 1964’s intergenerational masterpiece “The World of Henry Orient,” with its hero-worshipping tween team determinedly harassing concert pianist Peter Sellers. Amy rudely rushes up to the head of a book-signing line, sans book, or doggedly pursues Billings with Rubia on an improbable tandem bicycle. At Billings’ house, she raps tirelessly on his window until the beleaguered poet, annoyance warring with amusement, is forced to let her into his life as slave labor and butt of all jokes — which, to his continued astonishment, slide right off her back, her self-esteem seemingly impervious to attack.
The film’s satiric intent crystallizes in these heated, communication-free confrontations between Roberts’ Amy and Cusack’s Billings, each representing a different generation’s sense of entitlement — she the coddled result of an oversensitive education system, and he a petulant, now-aging enfant terrible. The improvisational zeal with which Cusack approaches his role (absent from his miscast villainous turn in “The Paperboy”) is particularly fun to watch.
Lenser James Laxton and production designers Jeff O’Brien and David Storm organically incorporate upstate New York’s inclement weather into the mix, lending Syracuse’s wintry cityscapes a sense of genteel shabbiness.