Adult Beginners tests the limits of likability. Filled with charming actors playing sympathetic characters—people like you and me who are just trying to get by—this comedy-drama never puts a foot wrong. And yet, its stakes are so low, its setup so familiar, that the film’s generally effortless flow starts to become a hindrance. You’ll enjoy spending some time with these people, but there’s a nagging certainty while watching Adult Beginners that these characters’ mild travails aren’t exactly worth the trouble of a whole movie.
The film stars Nick Kroll as Jake, a cocky, rising Manhattan entrepreneur who’s sunk his (and all his buddies’) fortune into a Google Glass-like eyewear technology product. When the investment goes belly-up fast, Jake is broke, friendless and desperate for a place to retreat. Reluctantly, he returns to his family’s Upstate New York home, which is now owned by his older sister Justine (Rose Byrne), who lives there with her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale) and their young son Teddy (played by Caleb and Matthew Paddock).
You won’t win any prizes correctly guessing that Jake and Justine have unresolved issues which will finally come to a head during a pivotal third-act confrontation. But for the most part, director Ross Katz (who made the superb Kevin Bacon Iraq drama Taking Chance) tends to keep the angst turned down to a polite murmur, focusing instead on the day-to-day aggravations always present, like background noise, in people’s lives.
The movie’s title refers to a swimming class for grownups who never learned when they were kids—like Jake and Justine—but, of course, it more broadly suggests that the three main characters are still novices in the process of figuring out exactly what constitutes adulthood. That’s a cutesy conceit, and it’s one that executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass have explored much better in their own films, such as Jeff, Who Lives at Home and The Puffy Chair. But here, despite a surplus of sensitive detail to the intricacies of sibling relationships and marital discord, Adult Beginners never escapes a general feeling of insignificance. To be fair, that assessment undervalues what Katz and his screenwriters achieve gracefully in an almost offhand manner—the sense of lives in quiet turmoil, the endless daily reminders that you’re not a kid anymore—but the film ultimately is only a collection of small, sorta-funny observations in search of something grander or more incisive to say about modern life.
Kroll, probably best known for The League and his outrageous characters on Kroll Show, is muted and sweet as an arrogant wheeler-dealer who reconnects with his family and, predictably, becomes a better person in the process. Byrne and Cannavale exude the casually tense body language of new parents, their love life yanked and twisted by the demands of a child. These are good people—even Danny, whom Jake suspects of having an affair, is nuanced—and they deserve to find a little contentment. But so do plenty of ordinary people, and nobody is making films about them. The irony of Adult Beginners is that viewers who will most likely relate to the exploits of Jake, Justine and Danny are probably the same ones who are so busy raising their own families that they don’t have a lot of time for movies these days.
Director: Ross Katz
Writers: Jeff Cox, Liz Flahive (screenplay); Nick Kroll, Jeff Cox, Liz Flahive (story)
Starring: Rose Byrne, Nick Kroll, Bobby Cannavale, Joel McHale, Caleb Paddock, Matthew Paddock
Release Date: April 24, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.