Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Nick Kroll and Rose Byrne are talented comedic actors, but they can only save Adult Beginners so much. The film, focusing on a techie whose business collapses in the wake of an industrial meltdown, should feel more timely and considerate of its social implications. Instead, it opts for an overly familiar story of a fish-out-of-water entering his stable sibling’s life, messing with their seemingly idyllic family unit. The aftermath is a comedy that’s too light on laughs and a drama that’s too easy on its characters. It walks that fine line that many mumblecore films attempt to balance well; the Duplass brothers as producers here should know that, considering their beautiful film Jeff, Who Lives at Home. That film, too, uses established, if not world-renowned, comedic stars and showcases them as prime examples for analyzing human simplicity and the struggles of everyday twentysomethings. The characters are older here, the conflict feels mostly contrived and derivative, and the comedy has bouts but never finds a consistent groove.
The film focuses on Jake (Nick Kroll), an entrepreneur that aims to introduce a device that is more affordable and revolutionary than Google Glass. His commercial is decidedly cheap-looking yet his product appears ready to launch in style. His business partner, Hudson (Joel McHale), is a long-time friend who breaks the news on the night of the launch party that the manufacturer is going to be pulling out. While this could seem recoverable, it was posted on a tech website, making the news catastrophically bad for the company and investors. Jake’s life feels ruined. So he travels to visit his sister, Justine (Rose Byrne), whom he hasn’t seen in years, and wants to crash there for as long as possible. In his case, that means a few months until he sorts things out and lets the situation blow over with all of his friends. He’s also dirt poor and finds a source of income from his sister and her husband, Danny (Bobby Cannavale): babysitting their son as opposed to spending money on daycare. The plan, while admittedly far-fetched considering Jake’s partying and inconsiderate ways, ends up forming a bond that grows strained as characters find out secrets about each other and such.
The title refers to an adult beginners class for swimming that the siblings hope will finally teach them, considering Justine’s son is starting to learn. If that sounds thematically confusing, it’s because it never really seems to mesh appropriately with the story being investigated. The established actors here are capable of elevating the film, particularly Byrne and Cannavale. Byrne showed how much of a comedic force she was in Bridesmaids, and stands to shine again in this summer’s Spy. Cannavale was phenomenal most recently on Boardwalk Empire, but also in a small, affecting role in Danny Collins. Yet their characters become involved in clichéd conflicts that feel like they could belong in any other small drama. Kroll, on the other hand, shows most of his (talented) sarcastic, prick-heavy ways that he’s balanced on Kroll Show and even guest stints on Parks & Recreation. The comedy they bring, along with the three writers and director Ross Katz, only produce middling chuckles and occasionally inspired bits. The rest feel strained, along with the vaguely sketched characters. Adult Beginners brims with potential, but never moves past its conventional set-up.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)