With most mainstream American movies remaining squeamish about sex, indies are supposed to pick up the slack with unafraid frankness. In the pitiable world of indie comedies, though, this often means addressing sex and porn with a kind of giggly smugness over mere flirtation with the subjects. Adult World, kinda-sorta about selling porn, isn’t as rock-stupid about the adult industry as something like Finding Bliss, a deservedly unseen comedy about making porn. In fact, a lot of Adult World is pretty charming, despite its creation of a bizarre porn shop that’s not funny, not insightful, and has little to do with the story the movie actually tells.
The porn shop of the movie’s title is where Amy (Emma Roberts) winds up working after graduating from college, once her parents balk at financing her hoped-for poetry career (entering lit-journal poetry contests costs money; the movie seems to at least know a little bit about the non-lucrative writing world). Puzzlingly, the movie takes no Clerks-like interest in the potentially amusing realities of day-to-day X-rated retailing or eccentric clientele. Instead, this porn store somewhere in downtown Syracuse, New York, looks like a consignment shop: shelves are thinly and erratically stocked with what looks like an odd mixture of vintage erotica, sex toys, and videos for rent. The store is owned and operated by a sweet older lady, who keeps a number of equally sweet-natured employees; they might as well be selling used books or hand-knitted sweaters.
Look, I’m not an expert in sex shops or the state of the porn industry. But I do come from upstate New York, and I am familiar with the internet. As such, I feel qualified to say that a porn store in Syracuse should at least appear a lot seedier, no matter how nice the owners are, and that even upstate, there aren’t a hell of a lot of people renting pornography these days. Ghost World showed more lived-in authenticity in a single sex-shop scene than Adult World does for its entire running time.
Perhaps stranger: beyond the way it steers Amy toward the possibility of writing erotica, Adult World‘s nominal setting doesn’t have much to do with the movie; it could be excised with very few changes. In pursuit of mentorship and possibly coming-of-age sex, Amy hounds her writing hero, local poet Rat Billings (John Cusack), into a mostly one-sided friendship. Cusack has been skulking around a lot of low-rent thrillers lately. Rat skulks, too, but in the familiar, comforting manner of a classic Cusack character gone to seed. Roberts, meanwhile, has logged time in plenty of coming-of-age indies, but here she gets to play the lead, rather than the perfectly flawed love interest in earnest junk like The Art of Getting By. Her Amy is immature, sometimes broadly so, but Roberts is a strong enough comedienne to pull it off. Once she intersects with Cusack, his practiced cynicism balances out her manic episodes, and they make a winning team. The screenplay, by Andy Cochran (an MTV veteran), doesn’t sentimentalize their relationship.
The rest of Adult World — the world beyond Amy and Rat — isn’t worth much; the supporting characters, including an age-appropriate love interest for Amy, are mostly thin, and its life lessons are imparted a little too blatantly. But as long as director Scott Coffey’s eye stays trained on his two stars, this unassuming indie forgets to giggle over its extraneous porn sideshow.