Not as Lovely as a Tree

Emma Roberts fawning over John Cusack in Scott Coffey’s “Adult World.” | IFC FILMS

Emma Roberts fawning over John Cusack in Scott Coffey’s “Adult World.” | IFC FILMS

The getting of wisdom is fraught with many attempts that result in failure. Life can grind talent down. It’s enough to cause a young, unpublished poet like Amy (Emma Roberts) to stick her head in the oven — that is until she declares it “suicidal plagiarism.” Gay filmmaker Scott Coffey’s “Adult World” is a knowing and very funny coming-of-age comedy about Amy’s craving for fame and her failure.

Amy is exhaustingly self-important, which is why she is such a terrific comic heroine. “Adult World” makes sure the insufferable Amy, played to a tee by Emma Roberts, gets every comeuppance she deserves. Roberts acts at such a perfectly high, chipper pitch that dogs might come running.

Amy writes pretentious, eye-rolling verse about the “screaming dirt of chaos.” She claims, rather unconvincingly, “I’m resilient!” after being humiliated by a hunky fellow poetry student. And when her father (Reed Birney) informs her he will not subsidize her poetry career, she declares, “I will suffer through this!” with a pluckiness that may induce giggles. All of Amy’s “thinking” and “feeling” are really indications of her lack of knowledge and understanding. She also has all too few coping mechanisms for life’s harsh realities, which makes her agitation so amusing.

Emma Roberts, John Cusack are starred-crossed would-be poets in Scott Coffey’s new comedy

Amy reluctantly finds a job at Adult World, a sex shop where the vibrators scare her and she wonders aloud — and in front of a customer, no less — about “sticky video returns.” Her naiveté is evidenced when she believes her cute co-worker Alex’s (Evan Peters) story about a customer’s dead wife and then tested when she spies the transgender Rubia (Armando Riesco) through a glory hole while cleaning the bathroom. And she’s drolly melodramatic when she compares riding the bus home at night in Syracuse to being “like in Mogadishu.” “Adult World” is full of such moments brilliantly puncturing Amy’s millennial privilege.

The film’s central storyline has Amy trying to ingratiate herself with her favorite poet, Rat Billings (John Cusack), a local. To him, she is a manic sycophant and a first class pain in the ass. Her pushiness prompts sarcasm from Rat: “You would be the type of muse I’d get!” Of course, Amy only hears the word “muse” and delights in it.

Rat’s bon mots in response to his clueless would-be protégé offer “Adult World” its best comic moments. He advises Amy Rat to “fail better,” which she does. A scene of Amy dressed up as a cheap hooker, swigging a bottle of alcohol and begging him to “pick her like an exotic flower,” is hilarious. Cusack marvelously conveys weariness and exasperation, as if channeling Bill Murray’s deadpan.

Given the film’s jaundiced view of Rat’s celebrity, Amy’s desperation to ascend to his level of mediocrity is the most telling thing about her. Her blinkered view of life is underscored by how little we learn about the other characters’ lives outside of Amy’s connection to them. She does manage to bond with both Rubia, with whom she temporarily moves in, and Alex, until a romantic conflict surfaces. Their kind-heartedness toward Amy may come off as improbable, but it effectively offsets Rat’s nastiness. And seeing her with Rubia and Alex, we never forget Amy’s narcissism.

“Adult World” is a bit formulaic in suggesting that what Amy needs to do is simply embrace her inner freak and accept the sort of marginalized status that Rubia has. The porn shop is an oddly safe space for Amy, who could realize her true self if she stopped writing bad poetry long enough to pay attention to people like Alex. There’s nothing new about these kinds of life lessons, but the message in “Adult World” manages to resonate. In sharply and sensitively played scenes toward the end, a slightly wiser Amy is finally, and poignantly, able to hear what Rat has been telling her all along. Coffey succeeds in not overplaying these moments.

“Adult World” finds real humor in Amy’s epic fail. Coming of age is painful, but it can also be hilarious.

ADULT WORLD | Directed by Scott Coffey | IFC Films | Opens Feb. 14 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com

More from Around NYC