Scott Coffey loves his screwball comedies. His directorial debut Ellie Parker which starred Naomi Watts was a brilliant little film that was criminally underrated. You also might know him as one of David Lynch’s many muses. He has appeared in Mulholland Dr., Lost Highway and was the voice of Jack Rabbit in Inland Empire. Coffey is no stranger to weird, which is why I’m somewhat disappointed by his second feature Adult World.
He replaces Ellie Parker, an aspiring actress in Los Angeles with Amy Anderson, an aspiring poet living in upstate New York. Switch Oscar-nominated Naomi Watts with a likable Emma Roberts and things are already a bit wary. It might be unfair to compare the two actresses, but I just can’t help myself. The themes in both movies are too similar to ignore their parallels.
So, there are two ways to read his new film which premiered during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It can be a simple independent comedy that gets by on its charm and sometimes witty writing. You can snuggle up with your significant other at your local movie theater and watch Emma Roberts’ Amy Anderson struggle with her post-grad life in upstate New York. And by struggle, I mean she suffers through a series of #whitegirlproblems. Amy is an overachieving, suburban, white, middle class twenty-something who is experiencing somewhat of an existential crisis. She’s a former English major who writes poetry. She probably received straight-A’s all through high school, was the captain of the field hockey team and the Editor-in-Chief of the school’s literary magazine. She was that girl in high school. The girl who was able to accomplish all of this without ever smoking a cigarette or passing second base. To round out the cast, there is a collection of misfits. She meets Alex (Evan Peters of American Horror Story fame) at her newfound job at the porn shop downtown. He’s the modest yet witty love interest. He’s a secret artiste (painting is his medium of choice). Rubia is a fellow coworker who happens to be a drag queen, played exceptionally by Armando Riesco. Along with Amy’s parents, Rat Billings (John Cusack) are the cynics existing in the “adult world.” The world that Amy can’t seem to figure out. More on Cusack’s Rat Billings later. There is enough “character” in this film to appreciate its endeavor. I enjoyed it immensely, even sitting a bit too close to the screen.
Adult World opens up with Roberts contemplating suicide. She walks into the kitchen, pulls open the oven door and sticks her head in. “Suicidal plagiarism,” she mutters to herself and stomps out of scene. She lies down on her bed and tries to suffocate herself with a black plastic bag, while a pink Sylvia Plath poster is hung up on her wall above her. Adult World has many scenes like this; it has all of the components of a quirky twenty-something indie comedy and on one level the film works. But that’s just it–it’s one level. It just scratches the surface. We never feel anything for Amy Anderson. If anything, she annoys us with her blind sense of entitlement.
But this is where we can read the film another way. Perhaps, Coffey is aware of his film’s superficiality. Maybe it was intentional. Perhaps it was his intention for the viewer to feel nothing for Amy. Coffey is using the conventions of the mid-aughts phenomenon known as the quirky “twenty-something indie comedy” to explore the emptiness of an entire generation. (Think Juno, Zooey Deschanel and anything that Michael Cera has ever been in). This is where Cusack is brilliantly cast as Rat Billings, a renowned poet-rebel who is much past his literary prime and teaches at the local university. Cusack represents an older generation unfamiliar with this generation’s sense of entitlement. Cusack is standing in for Coffey here. Cusack is an iconic 80s signifier. He represents a generation that knew you had to put in the work to become successful. Cusack and Coffey are familiar with this principle. Not everyone is talented and Amy needs someone like Rat Billings to tell her that. Amy idolizes Rat Billings and relentlessly stalks him at his book signings, at his home, and at his place of work. She finally convinces him to accept her as his protégé. Billings is a brooding alcoholic with an artist’s tongue. He delivers his witty one-liners like punctuation in a very jaded poem. Amy’s thirst for accolades, recognition and fame is “this generation’s Black Plague,” Billing says. And this is Professor Billings’ (and Coffey’s!) thesis.
Amy is the millennial epidemic personified. I catch myself identifying as Generation X, but it’s just wishful thinking. I may have been born in the 80s and watched grunge take over the neon days of the 80s but in every op-ed piece you read in newspapers and blogs about this generation’s (dis)connected youth, I fall right into the millennial epoch. I am defined by my birth year. I’m a millennial if I like it or not. My friends and I suffer from the same things that Amy does. Whether it be an immense amount of education without experience. Or the sense of entitlement because we were told we were “special” since the day we were born. Coffey’s Amy is an extreme case of the millennial blues. She hasn’t experienced anything outside the bounds of her family and school. Amy even manages to hold on to her virginity all through college. What kind of poetry would come from those life experiences?
Which ever way you to choose to view this film, it’s still an enjoyable ride. Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs did the score and filled up most of its soundtrack. Despite the few flaws in the film, Emma Roberts’ endearing mini-breakdowns and pouty tantrums are quite charming. Just don’t read any of her poetry. It’s terrible.
3 OUT OF 5 STARS