As the title suggests, ‘Adult Beginners’ is another one of those comedies about theoretically grown-up humans who are still little kids inside – you know, the type of comedy that’s been cranked out regularly since the Apatow revolution. It’s not a bad one, just not great. As a launching pad for Nick Kroll in the moving pictures, it’ll do.
Kroll stars as Jake, a lovably douchey guy who’s about to release a massive Google Glass-style invention when he learns at the launch party that it’s all falling apart. Suddenly, he’s lost everything and is deeply in debt to his investors. With no options left, he moves in with his sister Justine (Rose Byrne). Between rounds of the duo reviving their old childhood bickering, and some awkward forced bonding with Justine’s husband (the always excellent Bobby Cannavale), Jake ends up becoming nanny (or “manny” for extra laughs) to Justine’s kid. That means that a guy who has no interest in children has to figure out how to take care of one in all sorts of hilariously uncomfortable ways. He also hooks up with a single mommy and starts to rebuild his confidence. With a little luck, Jake and Justine might even be able to rebuild whatever broken bonds they still cling to since childhood, and maybe, just maybe, learn to become adults in the midst of all the childishness.
So…yeah, it’s not exactly the most unexpected or inspired premise for a comedy to come along this year. However, the movie does benefit from the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of filmmaking. The adult-child comedy formula might be running its course, but it’s not dead yet, and the folks behind ‘Adult Beginners’ squeeze out just a few more drops of life. Longtime producer Ross Katz makes his directorial debut with the film. He both clings to a safe formula to help out that career transition and uses his years of experience to spot and nourish a talented crop of actors. Kroll established his significant comedy chops long ago, but most of his work tends to stretch into the absurd and surreal in a way that would never work here. He gets to do some lovable asshole schtick that he’s comfortable with, but also has to play things dry and real in a way that’s slightly outside his comfort zone and succeeds admirably. The story (but not the script) was Kroll’s. Clearly, he geared the project to his strengths.
Even better is Rose Byrne, a dramatic actress with chops who is slowly proving to be a bit of a comedic genius. She meets all of Kroll’s challenges while also carrying the emotional backbone of the movie. Bobby Cannavale once again demonstrates that no matter how small or predictable a role he’s given, he will create a fully developed character and ladle on some laughs. One day soon, he’s going to stumble into a role that’ll get him all sorts of awards and appreciation. This one isn’t it, but it furthers the cause.
Around the edges, Katz sneaks in a few comedy ringers like Joel McHale and Bobby Moynihan, who grab some belly laughs for the trailers without pushing the film outside the realm of reality. Katz needs to keep things grounded enough for the dramedy, after all.
It’s within the dramatic portions of the movie that ‘Adult Beginners’ might test the patience of some viewers. The emotional arc of every character is pretty obvious from the moment they’re introduced with little variance, and the central metaphor of Kroll and Byrne learning how to swim as adults is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.
There are times when groans might feel appropriate, but Katz at least keeps his pacing quick and his movie centered on the performances to avoid too many pitfalls. ‘Adult Beginners’ is just sweet, funny and well-cast enough to succeed on its own meager terms. It’s not memorable enough to stick around for long, yet should be a pleasant enough timewaster when stumbled upon in streaming services after Kroll’s film career properly kicks off.