Several times during his turn as Rat Billings, the grizzled poet at the heart of Adult World, I wanted to punch John Cusack in the face. It’s a brilliant performance. In the quirky solar system of odd personalities making up this tale of a young Syracuse grad who wants desperately to be a published poet and takes Rat as her guide, Cusack makes an erstwhile and unfriendly sun: the other characters float around Rat like so many misfit asteroids. While some aspects of the film have an indie-fied clunk to them, Adult World works beautifully as a sad, sensitive character study, in which two people who could not be more different find some common ground—even if that common ground involves hostility. The main story of the film—a young poet needs money, finds work at a porn store, meets lots of interesting, kind people, and learns something about herself in the process—seems grossly outshadowed by the Krazy-Kat-and-Ignatz-style love-hate relationship between Cusack and his young would-be protégé.
This is a curious film, because the key characteristic that Cusack has always offered his audience is a certain comfort born of geniality. His emotional highs and emotional lows are always mitigated by a gentle squint and a soft, vaguely raspy voice. Even when he is seething with romantic rage as Rob in High Fidelity, or assassinating people with high efficiency in Grosse Pointe Blank, or swindling smoothly in The Grifters, you feel sympathy with him: sure, he just killed a man, but he must be an okay guy, deep down, right? This feeling we have might stem not so much from an effort on Cusack’s part to please audiences as from a certain relaxation with the camera—his tendency to “play himself” in films has been well-documented. His performance in this film gives little of the prior sense of comfort. Cusack might well be relaxed in the role, but it’s what he’s relaxing into that’s significant.
Rat is a certain kind of writing professor, whom anyone who has gone through a writing program might recognize (director Scott Coffey must have done his research): once proud, once tough and able to toss off bons mots with great ease, now settled into teaching at a university, not as well-praised, pushing himself through writing courses, possibly wondering if the whole thing is worth continuing, and taking it out on his students. When Amy (Emma Roberts), an ambitious young writer just out of college, forces herself on him in an effort to learn from him, he literally runs away from her—as he does from his students at the end of one of his writing classes. When the two of them have their first conversation, everything about Rat suggests enclosure: the way he folds his arms and legs in on himself, the pursed frown, and the cold look in his eyes, which he maintains throughout the film. Rat’s nastiness comes out most interestingly in the details, the small things he does. At one point, early in their acquaintance, Rat asks Amy, “Did Leyner put you up to this? Did Mark…?” Although Cusack and Mark Leyner, author of urbane humor classics Et Tu, Babe, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, and The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack, among others, are offscreen friends (they wrote War, Inc. together), mentioning Leyner says a lot about Rat, or what he once was: a young, cocksure, hip, attitudinal upstart who drew an audience in the early 1990s through his sarcasm and seeming toughness. At another moment, after Amy has thrown herself at Rat in a drunken stupor, she ends up in his lap: he heaves her, without much sentiment, onto a sofa, as if to show what he really thinks of her. His nastiness comes out in broad strokes too, of course; as he is about to slam his front door on Amy, he tosses off, “You’re the kind of muse I’d get,” and she’s thrilled, too naïve to hear the sarcasm. When he meets Amy’s parents, he confides to her mother that she “lacks all knowledge.” When a student in his class asks if a poem’s interpretation will be “on the test,” he tells her, “You’ll be tested every day, for the rest of your life, and you know what? You’ll fail.” The director tries to give Rat some moments of tenderness, at the very end of the film, but it rings falsely; somehow, for him to call Amy a “stem against the tide,” after having misled her in various ways which I won’t spoil, isn’t quite enough.
The film is carried, for the most part, by Cusack’s toned-down but tuned-in performance, though Coffey’s supporting cast is strong as can be. Funnily enough, John Cullum and Cloris Leachman play the owners of the porn store that gives the movie its title and gives Amy a job: Cullum’s most famous role in the last 25 years was as Holling in the TV cult favorite Northern Exposure, in which his character married a woman a quarter his age, and Leachman made a breakthrough performance in The Last Picture Show, as a football coach’s wife who cheats on her husband with a teen-aged Timothy Bottoms. Though there is no romance between Rat and Amy, Coffey seems to nod to its possibility with his casting choices. Evan Peters, as the perky, well-adjusted porn store manager, may be wildly miscast, but it’s easy to forgive, given the exuberance and energy he brings to the part. Roberts herself could best be described as intrepid; she brings as much magnitude as she can to what is, essentially, a “straight man” role,” that is, playing off of Rat’s jaded, tired, vaguely poisonous energy. There are many times where the movie’s seams show, where Coffey hits us over the head with a wanna-be tale of “uplift” and “finding yourself.” But the most interesting aspect of the film is its significance in Cusack’s career. This part, along with his performance as convict Hillary in The Paperboy or Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, are a long way from his performance as Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything. It will be enjoyable, if unnerving, to see where Cusack turns next.Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.