In the opening scene of Adult World, a modestly scaled comedy of the sort that littered the prime-time landscape before TV and film traded places, we meet Amy (Emma Roberts), a poet-yet-to-be with her head in a plastic bag. A poster of Sylvia Plath trembles with significance on her bedroom wall.
Unrequited submissions to literary magazines plain and fancy have laid poor Amy low. Do the rejections keep coming because a) she's cursed with loving parents and a stable suburban home; b) her straight-A student record proves neither here nor there in the business of living; or c) despite her profligate bandying of the words "suffering" and "life," she has neither suffered nor, in any significant sense, lived? Then there's d), she wants fame more badly than she wants to be a good poet. Bingo!
Amy is not director Scott Coffey's first artsy aspirant. His underappreciated 2005 comedy Ellie Parker had going for it both a terrific Naomi Watts, as a Los Angeles soap actress commuting between auditions for bigger movie roles, and an insider's knowledge of the entertainment-business periphery. Adult World, too, has a fine, jolie-laide sense of place — the movie is set in a snowbound and seedy upstate-New York downtown. But the movie lacks both the antic energy and the wry feel for the crazy sub-Hollywood milieu of Ellie Parker.
It also suffers from Colorful Character Syndrome. How many times have we met the likes of the wacky outliers who'll help get Amy a life? Start with the kindly staff (blink and you'll miss Cloris Leachman) of a grubby downtown porn store where she lands her first job; on hand also to give campus tours of the school of hard knocks is the statutory gruff-yet-golden-hearted drag queen (Armando Riesco), plus a washed-up poet — a very funny John Cusack in Christopher Walken hair — who answers to the name Rat Billings. It goes without saying that the drag queen, not the poet, knows from Emily Dickinson and haiku.
The weak link in an otherwise strong cast is Roberts. The young actress has just enough of her Aunt Julia's goofy elan to give a little bit of edge to her walking cliché factory of a character, who pronounces Rimbaud as Rim-bo and gushes, "I love how we're bantering" to her impervious mentor. But Roberts has a distracting habit of overcooking her lines and vamping until Amy seems little more than a superannuated teenager. Surrounded by judiciously underdone performances, including Roberts' fiancé Evan Peters as her lovelorn boss, Amy is too overdrawn for credibility, let alone sympathy.
What's refreshing, though, is Coffey's skeptical but affectionate feel for the tenacious strivers who cling like limpets to the margins of every arts scene, often for precious years of their impoverished lives. In the end Amy may or may not have the chops (or the luck) to make it as a poet, but this amiable, occasionally sharp-eyed movie makes us understand — as she must too — that lofty ambition often equals an evasion of hard work, humility and the insight that not everyone has what it takes.
In that regard, there will be good news and bad coming Amy's way before she can move ahead. "She's a great kid," Billings tells Amy's anxious mother. "But as my Dad used to say, she lacks all knowledge."