The mere fact that Adult Beginners (opening today) stars comedian Nick Kroll sets the movie up as a potentially raunchy, push-the-envelope comedy. Kroll is known for his sarcastic droll and for equally outlandish characters…just check out Comedy Central’s “Kroll Show” or his character Ruxin on FX’s “The League.” So it’s a bit jarring when the first 15-20 minutes of Adult Beginners isn’t all that funny.
But if you stick with it, you will begin to pick up on the idea that this is not meant to be a “balls-to-the-wall” comedy, and in fact, it sits more squarely in the independent film “dramedy” zone. It becomes an endearing story of brother-and-sisterly love, of relationships and parenting, and of growing up.
In other words, it is more mature material than anyone might expect Nick Kroll to have taken on.
Kroll plays Jake, a narcissistic entrepreneur who has just launched a new tech product meant to rival Google Glass. Having brought in all of his friends to be investors, it is even more heart-wrenching that at the very last minute, his manufacturers pull out of the deal, causing a massive crash-and-burn of his entire career. Broken and beaten with no money and nowhere to go, he seeks refuge at the home of his sister, Justine (Rose Byrne), whom he hasn’t seen in quite some time. Justine is married to Danny (real-life boyfriend of Byrne, Bobby Cannavale) and has a three-year-old son, with another child on the way. Jake is not ready to grow-up, let alone take care of or be around children, even though their care is one stipulation of allowing Jake to crash there.
One would think that this premise has the making of a sitcom, and one would be right. But this is not that typical movie where we see a man-child morph into a man as he slowly grows close to the child that he at first loathes. This film side-steps certain conventions (although it falls victim to others) and instead becomes a movie that deals with adult problems, and has something to say about all of us being in the same imperfect boat, or in the case of this film, all in the same swimming pool and in need of swimming lessons.
Although Jake shows up on Justine’s doorstep looking for help, his unexpected presence ends up being more important for Justine than it is for Jake. They rekindle their sibling bond and we eventually learn of some of the problems they faced growing up, like how the family was forever changed when their mother was diagnosed and eventually succumbed to cancer. Even though Jake is the proverbial “screw-up” we also learn that Danny and Justine are far from perfect: Danny is cheating on Justine with their real-estate agent, and pregnant Justine makes a series of bad decisions at her job that could cost her everything.
So it’s kind of like real-life, with real-people…a rarity for a comedy indeed. And although the film does delve a bit deeper into this relationship problems, the tone is kept quite light, with the help of great performances by Byrne, Cannavale and even Kroll, who keeps enough restraint here to prevent him from slipping into Ruxin-territory. Although a deeply dramatic scene later in the film shake’s loose more than one skeleton from Jake and Justine’s respective closets, the scene doesn’t feel out of place because of the endearing work that both actors had laid down prior to that moment.
And even though the film isn’t all that funny overall, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t more than a few laughs. Cameos by grandparents played by Jeffrey DeMunn and Celia Weston are spot-on hilarious, as are encounters with characters played by Bobby Moynihan, Jane Krakowski and Jason Mantzoukas. Other cameos – by Joel McHale and Mike Birbiglia – feel like favors from friends, which they probably are.
It’s uneven and familiar, but somehow it works. There are funnier comedies, more poignant dramas, more well-rounded characters and far better crafted independent films, but mostly due to its dedicated cast of comedians carefully walking the line between what’s funny and what feels real, Adult Beginners grows into something worth watching.
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Jason Mantzoukas, Bobby Moynihan
Directed by Ross Katz (feature-film directorial debut)
Opens locally on Friday, May 1, 2015 (check for show times).