RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 29: Scott Coffey’s “Adult World” (2013)

Adult World

The Players:

John Cusack, Emma Roberts and Evan Peters, with Armando Riesco, John Cullum and Cloris Leachman.

The Plot:

Recent college graduate Amy is sure she’s going to be a famous poet. But until then, if it ever happens, she reluctantly takes a job at an “adult” bookstore to make ends meet. Meanwhile, inspired by some found work by isolated post-punk poet Rat Billings, she decides to stalk out her muse in hopes to find a mentor. It does not go well, as such things often do.

The Rant:

For a few of the recent installments here at RIORI, I’ve waxed both nostalgic and poetic about my salad days in college. Being a post-modern English/Education/Philosophy student (with nary a whit of modesty) that I was, allow me to drop you some science. You want to know where the term “salad days” came from? No? Tough. My blog, my rules. It hails from (who else?) William Shakespeare. It’s from Antony and Cleopatra:

“…My salad days, when I was green in judgment; cold in blood…”

The phrase has since been adopted as the go-to excuse for the impulsive decisions we choose in our callow youth. Like getting a tattoo, or getting your labret pierced, or bleaching your hair, or smacking around a sh*t-ass drumkit for some going-nowhere notion of a rock band, or going to hole-in-the-wall clubs seeming built out of graffiti, spent plastic beer cups, cigarette butts, puddles of puke and a sense of self-satisfaction, or wasting hundreds of dollars on import CDs of your then favorite cult band via the demon eBay. Green in judgment? Cold in blood? Sounds like my punker days at ol’ SU. Tattoos, piercings, two-toned hair, wannabe-garage-band-on-the-side, a stupid tab at an unattractive trough, and an unhealthy collection of Joy Division and Ramones bootlegs. Good times, good times.

Hey. It was the ‘90’s. Back off. To wit, Oasis actually had a career then. Chilling.

Anyway, there you have it. My alma mater in a weak nutshell. I’m not wholly sure if I ever name-dropped the school I got the degree from here, but now you have it. Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Huzzah. It was a good school. I learned a lot. Studied under some very good professors. Made a lot of cool friends. Did a lot of self-exploration. Read more post-modern and deconstructionist philosophy than any sane person would or should. It was the place to be for an aspiring educator and writer like myself to be schooled.

Of course I’m looking back on my days at Syracuse with a bleary lens. The college may have been grand, but the local scene and the town itself was beat. Imagine a grey metropolis worn down by urban blight and self-resignation with the art scene a weak, glowing ember under foot of the townies who didn’t really care for the student body in the first place. The only bright spots the city had going for it was the school, an sort-of gentrified, Boehme neighborhood downtown where the cool record shops, clubs and restaurants were, and a massive, opulent shopping mall built over the site of a former toxic waste dump (really). If you haven’tve ever been through such a town, imagine Bridgeport, CT or Allentown, PA with a Café Wha? right next to the welfare office and there you have Syracuse.

I never could understand the malaise the locals had towards the students. After all, the university was the highlight of the town, and the students brought business. I’d like to believe that the isolated, staid culture that hung over the cities along in the lee of Lake Ontario—Syracuse, Rochester, Oswego—were a result of the muting consequence of “lake-effect weather” which drove everybody indoors for the better of a year. Cold rains in the spring, stuffy air in the summer and perpetual swirling snowstorms around the New Year. The winters were eternally grey, a steel-colored sky that casted its pall over the town starting at Halloween and eventually dissipating come Easter. The snow and ice would hang in the air, never really collecting. It was like being stuck inside a snow globe, minus the whimsy. Due to the climate—social and otherwise—the lack of hospitality from the townies rendered the college scene an entity unto itself, cards held close to the chest, a bulwark against the willful hostility and decidedly xenophobic residents of the Salt City. Maybe it was the notions of the locals that the students came from a monied background and thought they were somehow better than the locals (who had been suffering from economic damage for decades, the city slowly going under while the college thrived). Jealousy. Maybe that and there were a lot of non-white people being deposited into the community courtesy of fall enrollment every August. I dunno.

In any event, partially due to the influx of new faces from across the country (and often from across the globe), Syracuse generated a certain literary-minded quality. A lot of noteworthy writers had strolled though the college and surrounding community over the years. Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, William Safire, Joyce Carol Oates and Shirley Jackson to name a few. Even Stephen Crane attended classes at SU once (but he never did graduate). The place was a quiet hotbed of would-be and sometimes successful writers and journalists, and the snow-weary brick homes around the school had the air of quiet desperation that comes with the mostly solitary act of writing. Salad days or no, my times and explorations at SU allowed me a certain degree of youthful woolgathering, dreaming of the day when I would be a published author, living in a quiet brick house with a solid oak door, roaring fireplace, and Friday evenings with the local literary elite. The residential parts of town had the romantic air of JD Salinger somewhere barricaded against the wintery weather and open hostility of the general public to hunker down over the typewriter and write for his own pleasure, and no other audience.

Salad days, remember? Despite the grey—or maybe because of it—my imagination grew fallow, green at Syracuse. It was only the naïveté of English students such as myself that created such a romantic, unrealistic view of a dumpy burg with a killer philosophy department. Seems that I wasn’t alone in my mind’s eye. Such fanciful notions seemed to have rubbed off on Adult World’s writer Andy Cochran and director Coffey…

Virginal college grad Amy (Roberts) is a fledgling poet, already entrenched in both the starving artist schtick and a need for a “real job.” Problem is, apart from hundreds of rejection letters for the various publications that have been stuffing the mailbox, there aren’t any real job prospects in Central New York for a budding rhymester. Her parents aren’t having a hard time reminding her of the thousands of dollars of student loan debt that’s been racked up, so since push has come to shove, and Amy’s prospects are slim, she better find some source of real income soon…or else.

Dragging her ass home one night after an abortive house party, Amy stumbles upon an abandoned car stuffed full of tattered books (of all things). She absently snatches a hardcover at random from the pile. In her hands is a copy of poetry written by one Rat Billings (Cusack). After thumbing through the book, Amy realizes that she has discovered her muse. Rat’s writings are just what she has always aspired to create. Now, if only she could meet the actual man…

Wait! He’s local! Time to get stalking.

But before she stars her quest, there’s that little matter of personal finance to tackle. After unsuccessfully trying to get a legit job (turns out there just aren’t many opportunity for majors in poetry out there than Amy hoped to believe), she happens on a dumpy shop with a HELP WANTED sign in the window. What the hell. Inside she discovers, to her horror, that the joint is an adult sex shop. XXX videos. Spank books. Anal beads. Hot cocoa. The place has it all. It’s called Adult World, imaginatively enough, and the kindly co-owner Mary Ann (Leachman) is delighted that a college grad would take interest in the position (better than some slacker high school snot). Amy balks at first, but a job is a job—and it doesn’t hurt that the friendly assistant manager Alex (Peters) is easy on the eyes—so, again, what the hell.

Back to the stalking: turns out that Rat is a reclusive writer, not to mention (surprise!) a misanthrope and a cynic. No matter to Amy; Rat’s doing a book signing town, and here’s the perfect opportunity to plumb the mind of a real, published poet, albeit a minor one. We’re not talking Sylvia Plath here. But his work spoke to her, which is a shade more compelling than meeting the needs of the losers who queue up at Adult World for the latest video releases and a jar of Vaseline. Maybe Rat’ll converse with her. Maybe he’ll read her poetry. Maybe he’ll give her some help, some constructive criticism. So bowled over by her raw talent, maybe he’ll take her his wing as a protégé!

Maybe he’ll tell her to go take a flying leap…

Adult World is a movie described by an adjective I have never used here at RIORI: charming. Sure, the movie is derivative, predictable and Roberts’ acting can get really annoying, but Adult World feels greater than the sum of its parts. Feels mind you, not is. It’s a polite, pleasant film with a few laughs, a great setting (regardless of my bias), and an easygoing pace. It’s quietly engrossing in its own way, kinda like when you’re stoned and find yourself staring at a strawberry for over an hour. You don’t feel like your wasting time watching the movie, but 90 minutes slip by regardless when you could’ve been doing something more productive. Like the strawberry would have waited for you.

But Adult World does indeed have its charms. The movie slipped under the radar upon its release in 2013. It saw a few reviews, mostly mixed. The only real highlight of the film that both audiences and critics alike picked up on was John Cusack’s performance as Rat. Now I have been a Cusack fan ever since adolescence, and not just because of his breakthrough role as Lloyd Dobler in …Say Anything (ah yes, the iconic boombox/Peter Gabriel scene. Often imitated but never duplicated, which launched the ships of many a cheesy teen romcom). I’m no snob when it comes to films. Not really, despite my endless polemics here at RIORI. I loved Cusack’s salt mine years with such goofy throwaways in the 80’s like Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer (both live-action cartoons, really. Summer had the delightful kooky cast of a very young Demi Moore, Curtis “Booger” Armstrong and unhinged, screechy comedian Bobcat Goldthwaite chewing scenery. Not to mention Cusack’s bit part in Sixteen Candles. All classics). In those trifles, Cusack honed his loveable loser persona. Awkward, earnest, often innocent and sometimes snarky, he had this endearing quality that one hoped transferred to real life. I’m not certain if Cusack is a dick in real life; I hope not.

Anyway, people argued for the fact that Rat Billings was the best role Cusack’s had in years. This is true. After shuffling through big-budget clunkers like 2012 and The Raven, (there was a little gold in there with Hot Tub Time Machine. Very little), Cusack seemed better as playing minor roles. Not necessarily as an actor but as low-key characters, self-effacing and sincere. I mean, all of the characters in Adult World are stereotypical, interchangeable ciphers, but since Cusack’s acting has always been kind of fluid (albeit in that signature hangdog way), his placement in the film seems just right. It’s not as if the role stretched him as an actor, but instead it played to his strengths and in turn fell right at home here.

This can’t be said of winsome, perpetually 16 year old Roberts. Her Amy is banal, annoying and pigeonholed into your average wide-eyed college student as can be. Seems here that Roberts is attempting to shed her skin of her CV of dreadful tween flicks (better so than We’re the Millers). She’s doing it without resorting to being sordid like an adult Lindsey Lohan. Adult World is a far cry from Hotel for Dogs, but Roberts is just too innocent and naïve to play, well, innocent and naïve. Amy is a stereotype, and not a terribly convincing or relatable one at that. And the starving artist deal has been done countless times before, and with a lot better results. Roberts plays naïve to the hilt, and it gets kinda tiresome.

Adult World has a goofiness one can find endearing. But it also has all the familiar trappings of indie films over the past 25 years, set to the de rigueur quirky soundtrack. This is a cut-and-paste kind of affair, and you can apply whatever redeeming values you have toward the film as you can conjure up. Adult World isn’t breaking any new ground here. I don’t think that was Coffey’s aim. This is a movie designed to be seen in the early evening with a date as a prologue to a cuppa at the local coffee shop, but not any notions of carnality in the future. Still, for all its Central New York blah, Adult World is entertaining, if only to see Rat grumble and ward off the spunky Amy who is so (predictably) blinded by art that she fails to register she sells dildos to make ends meet. Huh, that might be the story of hundreds of recent college grads who walked away with a degree in poetry. Or English and Critical theory. Or architecture for that matter.

I was trying not to view Adult World with the friendly, blurry eyes of nostalgia. I know the story takes place on my old stomping grounds, and it’s easy to confuse memory with actuality. The movie does carry a predictable meter, but somehow retains it charms. Must be the dialogue. That and Cusack’s “comeback” performance (OMG. Rat was me in college. Now I have to learn to hate myself. I’m comfortable with that). You see a lot of the story coming, but it’s a laid-back trip, which makes for a relaxing stroll around the grimy streets of Syracuse to take in the local lack of color. Who knows? Adult World might give you a hankering for a visit to Syracuse to check out its small, literary underworld. There are a lot of homes that look like Rat’s digs.

Just don’t say you’re from the college. Your accent would give you away and you’d just receive unfriendly stares and a face full of snowballs. Even if it’s June.

The Verdict:

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, if only as a lark. Adult World has been done before, and with more verve, but if you’ve missed the Cusack of old, here he is.

Stray Observations:

  • Suicide by electric oven. Yeah, it doesn’t work that way.
  • “There’s a lot of kiwis…”
  • That’s the director Scott Coffey as the bookstore owner. He kinda looks and acts like a college bookstore owner, don’t he? Must be the haircut.
  • “Have sex with me.” “No.”
  • I think I need a graph like that. Some things coffee cannot exorcise.
  • “Don’t take my napkins!”
  • Holy sh*t. I’ve eaten in that restaurant. The place was mediocre, but it had great lighting.
  • My wife and I used to kiss like that. I guess I better get back to that novel.

Next Installment:

Commercialized music got you down? Can’t find a place to hear all your favorite indie rock songs? Hate Katy Perry? You should start yourself your very own Pirate Radio station!


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