Tame and derivative, Katz's familial dramedy is nevertheless an easy-breezy watch.
Director Ross Katz (Taking Chance) has a bit of fun without leaving the shallow end of the pool in his sophomore full-length feature, Adult Beginners. It’s a generally tame but warmly entertaining familial dramedy steered by three very talented grown-ups: Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale. The former two play an estranged brother and sister reconnecting at a pivotal time in their lives; the latter two play a relatively happy married couple whose world is consumed by their young, wily son. The drama that ensues is packed on pretty light. Low-stakes affairs don’t typically go over well at the movies, but this thing, as it turns out, has just enough charm and humor to make it pleasurable, especially on a lazy Sunday afternoon, cuddled up in your favorite onesie, a heaping bowl of cereal at the ready.
A flash of comedic buffoonery opens the movie, the high energy of which is never revisited again. We meet entrepreneur Jake (Kroll) celebrating the launch of his new startup with his tech-bro business partners in his expensive Manhattan apartment, making rich douchebag jokes, making out with his hot girlfriend, and snorting blow. Before the opening credits end, Jake’s business abruptly crashes due to a logistics oversight he made, losing he and all his buddies a ton of cash. Dejected, dumped by said hot girlfriend, and nauseous from riding the train backwards, Jake returns to his hometown of New Rochelle where his sister, Justine (Byrne), is raising a family in their childhood home. Her husband, Danny (Cannavale), persuades her to hire Jake (now broke as a joke) as their son Teddy’s babysitter.
Justine’s faith in Jake is rightfully uneasy. He’s a self-absorbed, pig-headed bellyacher who easily rivals the bouncing 3-year-old as the most high-maintenance person in the house. She needs the help, though: On top of being constantly pressured at work, she’s got another baby in the oven. Danny, while unquestionably in love with Justine, is sexually stonewalled due to her high-demand schedule and brother issues. Naturally, as per indie comedy tradition, he has a moment (or two, or three) of weakness, seeking affection outside the relationship. Just as naturally, Jake starts to get pretty good at being an uncle. He goes from rolling Teddy around in a suitcase (he can’t figure out how to configure the stroller) to eventually preparing the tyke’s favorite snacks and lulling him to sleep with old story-time cassettes.
Throughout, Adult Beginners is schematic and derivative, but the three mains are game enough to keep things interesting surprisingly soulful. In almost everything she’s in, Byrne is the pick of the litter. As a gift to Katz and writers Liz Flahive and Jeff Cox, she breathes life into scenes that on paper are kind of flaccid and uninspired. Cannavale isn’t the most versatile actor, but the fact that he and Byrne have been dating in real life for years obviously makes for an easy dynamic between them. Kroll’s humor is admittedly not up my alley. Sometimes he hits me in the gut and I burp up a laugh, but he throws a lot of big whiffs too, especially when he tries to be a funny asshole (all I see is asshole). He’s actually most useful when he’s being sincere, a pleasant surprise considering his background.
It’s hard to shake the similarities between Katz’s movie and Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, if you’ve seen it. That indie sibling dramedy, which has Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader filling Byrne and Kroll’s shoes in a broadly similar narrative, has a much larger spectrum of emotion: the laughs are louder, the drama is more heightened and deepened, and the actors showcase more of their talent. Adult Beginners feels too stabilized and mild-mannered to warrant more than a sick-day rental.