In my blurb review for Neil Jordan’s vampire film Byzantium, my main gripe had a lot to do with the age of the main character. Eleanor in that movie is a well-traveled and world-hardened 200 years old, but she’s written like she’s a sheltered 16 year old.
There’s a similar issue I had with Adult World, which is (finally) a movie about a lousy young writer. That’s right: this isn’t a story about a promising undiscovered talent looking for a reclusive mentor. Amy (Emma Roberts) is a deluded wannabe who is more interested in the idea of being a writer than actually writing quality work.
There’s so much potential in that set up. But one of the problems: Amy is a 23-ish year-old Syracuse graduate with a poetry degree, but she’s written like she’s a sheltered 16 year old.
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Director: Scott Coffey
Release Date: TBD
The difference between a sheltered 16 year old and a 23 year old who successfully completed college can’t be understated, especially if the character got good (not just decent) grades at school. A person learns a lot in those seven years, and lives a lot too. If that person’s a writer (even a really bad one), he or she is bound to read a fair amount of work and learn a good amount of craft before leaving with a BA. I’m not sure about the undergrad literature department at Syracuse and their creative writing classes, but their MFA program is good — the faculty includes George Saunders, who’s one America’s best writers, often compared in glowing terms to both Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain.
Amy would probably have done her best to get in the good graces of some poet teaching at Syracuse while she was there. That poet is Rat Billings (John Cusack), whose work she discovers one night on the street after leaving a college party. For some reason Amy, the Billings obsessive who has read all of his work, never knew that Billings taught at her own school, and she never tried to seek him out until after she graduated from college. Come to think of it, I think she’s supposed to be a relatively recent college graduate, but somehow she hasn’t paid her student loan for months.
When we first peek into Amy’s life, she’s trying to make it on her own without her parents’ help. She cluelessly submits her awful work to The New Yorker and Harper’s. She gets a job at a quirky, oddball mom-and-pop porn shop called Adult World, which looks a bit more like a local indie bookstore. She makes quirky, oddball friends, including her co-worker Alex (Evan Peters) and a transvestite named Rubia (Armando Riesco). Somehow Amy is sexually clueless at her age and has never hung out with a person in drag; and at one point she even scolds a customer for renting sexist material. (Why a contemporary college grad would be so second-wave-feminism about porn is a bit odd to me since the sex-positive third-wave has been around for a generation now. The kids these days, they love it; the kids my day, they loved it too.)
So many of the problems above might have been fixed if director Scott Coffey and screenwriter Andy Cochran just de-aged Amy. She’s written like a sheltered 16 year old, so just make her a sheltered 16 year old. Take her out of college completely so there’s no problem of too much inexperience and too much naivete and not enough friends. For some reason the only friend that Amy made during college and still talks to is Candance (Shannon Woodward); for some reason Amy didn’t want to hang out with other bad poets, which are plentiful — in most undergrad programs across the country, there are usually four bad ones for every good one.
Without the college degree, Amy is now a tyro expressing the amateur’s enthusiasm about writing; a character who reads poetry but doesn’t understand its music, its meaning, or its pleasures on anything but a superficial level; the exact sort of person interested only in the idea of being a writer rather than what it takes to become a good writer. (Though sadly that sort of delusion and ineptitude persists even in people who have literature degrees from accredited universities.)
Maybe I’m a little too harsh on the film since the performances are actually pretty good. While I could do without the overdose of quirky and oddball like a folksy mom-and-pop porn store, it’s always nice to see Cloris Leachman around. Riesco’s fun when on screen, and Roberts has the right amount of psychotic enthusiasm. Cusack is interesting in the movie in that he lacks the usual quirks of writers depicted on film. He’s simply a guy doing work, which is what being a writer is about. There’s no magic — it’s a person who takes writing seriously and writes and reads. It’s not as romantic as the idea of being a writer, that fantastical thing that draws so many people into writing crappy poetry and wretched prose.
The machinery for a small-scale satire on the lit scene is in Adult World as well, though never quite realized. Young and dumb Amy laments not breaking big at an early age. To that Billings plainly says something like, “Fame is the bane of your generation, kid.” It’s actually pretty true. There’s so much pressure felt by twentysomethings to achieve and to succeed when young. For every Jonathan Safran Foer and others in The New Yorker‘s 20 under 40 list, there are plenty of writers who work diligently and find no success until later in life (Jennifer Egan talked about that after A Visit from the Goon Squad hit big) or even people who didn’t publish work until much later in life (e.g., Raymond Chandler).
Outside of this pressure to publish while young, Adult World also jabs at the coddling of precious little snowflakes. Both of Amy’s folks support her writing and tell her it’s great, but it’s just plain garbage. It’s the kind of dreck that would get polite applause at a sparsely attended open mic and would only be remembered for being quotably bad. The idea that opinions about quality are subjective can be valid with most works made with some level of competence, but sometimes a poem or a book is legitimately bad and there’s no getting around it. It would save a lot of frustration if the little snowflakes of the world were just told their stuff was crap when it’s crap. The young people who care about their craft would take it on the chin and improve.
As I step back from Adult World, I like what it is at its heart: a young writer’s journey of self-discovery in which she may learn that she really, really sucks at writing. But as they tell a lot of students in those lower-division intro to creative writing classes, it’s all about the execution.
[For tickets and more info on Adult World, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]