Gore Vidal would have hated “Adult World,” the Emma Roberts vehicle that premiered at Tribeca Wednesday night. “He had a great **** detector,” notes the veteran journalist Robert Sheer, in Nicholas Wrathall’s doc “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” which premiered the same night at Tribeca, which clearly intends to provide something for everyone. More about Vidal’s powers of detection in a moment.
First, it should be said that Wrathall’s film, which includes extensive and very sad footage of its subject during the last enfeebled months before his death last July, does exactly what it should: It makes you miss Gore Vidal. To paraphrase one of the doc’s many learned witnesses, he spent his life being a thorn in the side of the very establishment to which he was born. The grandson of a U.S. senator, a relative by marriage to Jackie Kennedy, a distant cousin of Al Gore and a confidante of everyone from Paul Newman to Tennessee Williams to Christopher Hitchens, Vidal virtually invented the modern historical novel, was an essayist, playwright, TV personality and perhaps the most cynical commentator ever on the congenital deformity of American politics.
Wrathall covers all the predictable moments, and skirmishes -- Vidal’s notorious TV duels with William F. Buckley and Normal Mailer, for example. But for all the history he revisits, he also gets beyond Vidal the caustic raconteur, droll critic and Olympian cynic and provides an intimate portrait of a man who may have been the last of his breed, the celebrity intellectual.
Wrathall also reminds viewers who may have forgotten -- or never knew -- that, in addition to every other accomplishment, Vidal was one of the last century’s most important figures in the gay movement, a writer who came out when it was dangerous to do so, and whose career suffered accordingly.
As far as can be determined, Vidal never saw an Emma Roberts movie. But it’s interesting to imagine the withering glare he would have cast on “Adult World.” Set in what feels like in an indeterminate time period, in the wintry city of Syracuse, New York, actor-turned-director Scott Coffey’s anorexic comedy features Roberts as Amy, a desperate wannabe poet with no discernible talent, a set of delusions that cry out for professional attention and a limited quotient of charm. What would have been an interesting, knotty concept is only hinted at -- a movie about someone in thrall to the idea of writing, but who can’t write. Instead, Coffey ("Ellie Parker") gives us weak tea. And at a seemingly civilized 97 minutes, it feels like weeks.
The intangibles of stardom are just that. And while Roberts may have the stuff of wisecracking sidekicks and tragic best friends, expecting her to carry a movie with as little comedic substance as “Adult World” is expecting too much. That she gets little help, aside from John Cusack – who plays Amy’s favorite writer, and the bad guy, because he knows how little talent she has --- is not the fault of Roberts’ co-stars, but rather a script by Andy Cochran that really doesn’t give anyone anything to do. Aside from setting much of the action in an adult video store -- which, like the rest of the film, feels more than a little anachronistic -- director Coffey has created a comedy in which the rare laugh is unconnected to anything in the story. And there’s certainly not much of that.
Watch the trailer from "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia" here.