There is something instantly watchable about characters stuck in arrested development. Watching our title character crash and burn before even the opening credits have finished, putting them on a path where they’ll need to rebuild themselves makes for enjoyable storytelling. Adult Beginners does just that with Jake (Nick Kroll) beginning the film on a high, having just launched a product that is expected to make he and his employees rich, only to hear at the launch party that he’s lost everything. Jake makes the impulse decision to return to his childhood home where his sister Justine (Rose Byrne) lives with her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale) and their young son Teddy. They’re expecting their second child so Jake is allowed to live with them as long as he pitches in and plays the part of nanny. They strike a relaxing rhythm until Jake see’s Danny involved in an affair and their relationships begin to strain.
This is the type of film that I’m typically a sucker for (see films such as The Skeleton Twins as an example). Relationship dramas with comedians playing up the dramedy aspect, set in small town settings with big and small emotional payoffs. These films belong in their own genre as far as I’m concerned. But, with as many successes that Adult Beginners has-and they have plenty-there are a number of small flaws that hold it back.
Ross Katz has an eye for capturing emotional beats but the pacing is rushed. Rather than linger in a moment the film keeps pushing forward to the next which takes away from some of the weightier scenes. It keeps some of the comedic moments from landing as well as the pace keeps the tones jumping so frequently that sometimes we don’t get a moment to reset.
Luckily the faults hardly diminish the story that’s solid and sincere and hosts some wonderful interplay. Adult Beginners isn’t so much about adults behaving as children and more about pressing the reset button on their lives. It’s about their worlds slowly falling apart and their need to gather themselves together, rally their nerves and get on with it. Nothing monumental on a large scale happens but little things happen that mean the world to them. It’s real people making human mistakes that are often childish, selfish or rash-sometimes even all of the above-and then having to deal with them. Sure, the tone meanders and spikes to try and make sure the audience knows exactly what we should be feeling at a certain moment, but for the most part those scenes feel earned.
All of this works even in the films messier structuring because the main trio of performers are uniformly strong along with bite sized appearances by Joel Mchale, Bobby Moynihan and Jane Krakowski.Kroll was the biggest surprise considering he’s never lead a film or veered into more dramatic territory and he does both well. I would almost argue that he performs better in the dramatic camp than the comedic in this film because while he’s funny he seemed to be playing a character in those moments opposed to his quieter, more effortless scenes. Bobby Cannavale is becoming a favorite of mine, never turning in a dull performance but, as is the case with most of the films she’s been in lately, Rose Byrne is the true highlight. She and Kroll share a chemistry that plays well to their characters being siblings and she injects a lot of heart into the film. You always feel for her no matter her situation and the hints we get that she gave up a career for an ailing mother pulls at your sympathy immediately. Most importantly they make us like these characters and want to root for them even when they’re acting out their petty impulses.
Adult Beginners is a sweet film and a nice showcase for both Kroll and Byrne in particular.
Adult Beginners is out today in limited release or on VOD.