Adult Beginners (2015)
90 min., rated R.
Jay and Mark Duplass-produced indie "Adult Beginners" doesn't put a different wrinkle on the arrested-development story, but originality can be overrated sometimes. Not unlike last year's "other" Duplass Brothers-produced brother-sister dramedy "The Skeleton Twins" with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, this more middle-of-the-road entry also deals with maturation, the mending of sibling relationships, deceased parents, extramarital affairs, and swimming pools. Previously making his name as a producer on "In the Bedroom" and two Sofia Coppola pictures, Ross Katz makes his directorial debut out of a story by Nick Kroll (TV's "The League"), who also gets his first lead role and leaves room for improvement but shows potential. Déjà vu might be written all over the minor "Adult Beginners," but it's still sweet-natured comfort food with enough likability to put it over.
During the launch party of his million-dollar Google Glass-like "Minds i," narcissistic Manhattan product investor Jake (Nick Kroll) tarnishes his name and everyone's trust by losing all of his money and the money of those involved. With nowhere else to go, he shows up on the doorstep of his suburban family home in New Rochelle, now owned by estranged, pregnant-again sister Justine (Rose Byrne), contractor husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale), and their 3-year-old son, Teddy (Caleb and Matthew Paddock). For three months, Jake lives on the air mattress. He intends to get his life together, reeling from his professional and personal shambles, but instead of getting back to work, Jake gives "mannying" a try. Meanwhile, Justine and Danny have their own individual issues, but Jake might just be the middle man to fix everything.
"Adult Beginners" comes close to begging the viewer to roll his or her eyes, but everything exists more in reality than a sitcom. Director Ross Katz and husband-and-wife screenwriters Jeff Cox (2007's "Blades of Glory") and Liz Flahive (TV's "Nurse Jackie") check off every arrested-development and parenthood cliché. Self-involved man-child becomes a "manny" for his nephew. Brother and brother-in-law sneak pot. A character notices someone else having a possible affair with a co-worker. Siblings reminisce of their cancer-stricken mother with home movies. Finally, will our hero choose his family over a soulless corporate job? One can almost always guess where the expected trajectory is headed and be right. Some of the subplots telegraph conflicts that resolve in tidy ways, and one involving a Harvard-bound student (Sarah Steele) being prepped for college by Justine is forgotten about. But—and it's a slight "but," but a "but" just the same—the characters feel like real human beings who exist beyond the narrative and not just as screenwriting puppets. Also helping its case, the film has a breezy tone and offers some unforced humor and moments of relatability more than not.
Jake is established as an insincere tool early on, so it's never in doubt that he will be wiser and stronger by the end. It's a natural fit for Nick Kroll, who handles a caustic one-liner with aplomb ("Jesus, enough. You look like a Tim Burton creature," Jake jests, as Justine applies eye shadow in the car for a night-out). Rose Byrne never strikes a false note, not anywhere and not here as Justine, justifying why she's one of the warmest and most self-deprecating actresses working today who can effortlessly slip between pathos and comedy. The always-welcome Bobby Cannavale also lends shadings where he can as Justine's husband, who's put in a negative light but still isn't pigeonholed, either. Mainly, though, Kroll and Byrne click as estranged siblings and have very nice moments together. The rest of the cast—Joel McHale, Jason Mantzoukas, Sarah Steele, Jeffrey DeMunn, Celia Weston, Julie White, Jane Krakowski and Bobby Moynihan—is nice to see, but their time isn't really well-spent, appearing in bit parts that don't really pop and add very little. Resolutely predictable and low-stakes but affable, "Adult Beginners" isn't much. It's more of a comfortable sit than a life-changing experience, but the actors makes it seem like a genuine effort.
Grade: B -