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Review: Adult Beginners (2015)

Adult Beginners (2015)

Directed by: Ross Katz

Premise: A technology startup implodes on the eve of its launch. Broke and humiliated, a young entrepreneur (Nick Kroll) moves in with his sister and her family and provides daycare for her son but he discovers that domestic life is not easy.

What Works: The independent film scene has generated an entire subgenre of offbeat dramas about middle aged and middle class white characters who are professionally and developmentally stuck between adolescence and adulthood. Some of the notable titles in this trend include Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Drinking Buddies, Your Sister’s Sister, and The Skeleton Twins and many of these films echo the tone and conventions (and share some of the performers) of Judd Apatow’s films like Knocked Up and Funny People. The latest entry in this subgenre is Adult Beginners and like a lot of similar pictures it is about people in early middle age coming to terms with the shortcomings of adulthood. There is an inherent problem for a lot of these movies in that the characters tend to be whinny as they bemoan their first world problems. That can be quite off-putting but the filmmakers of Adult Beginners manage the audience’s cynicism by approaching the story with some wit and humor and by placing the characters in vulnerable and empathetic positions. The brother and sister, played by Nick Kroll and Rose Byrne, have some unresolved tension regarding the death of their mother and that gives their arguments some additional substance. Adult Beginners is also impressive in the way it upsets the formula of a movie like this. In more mainstream movies of this type, a cynical and childless character who enjoys the single life discovers the joys of family, oftentimes falling for a romantic partner with whom he can start his own litter, and ultimately surrenders to domesticity. Adult Beginners does not conform to this template and in some ways the moviemakers upset it. Nick Kroll’s character does begin as a self-absorbed single and he does discover some happiness in being a caretaker for his nephew but he also finds that the marriage between his sister and brother-in-law is not as ideal as its surface suggests. The couple, played by Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannivale, are expecting their second child and the rigors of pregnancy and the doldrums of everyday life have led the husband into an affair. The wife is oblivious to this but Byrne plays the role with a lot of subdued anxiety that reveals her own reservations about family life. All three of the central performances of Adult Beginners are very strong with the actors bringing a lot of reality to their parts, at least for the first two thirds of the picture, and they are convincing as siblings and as a married couple. Also notable is the relationship between Kroll’s character and a nanny played by Paula Garcés. Their romance is credible and fun but it also pokes holes in the clichés of mainstream domestic stories.

What Doesn’t: Adult Beginners wobbles in its last third. The story establishes some interesting ideas and subplots but it doesn’t really resolve anything. The dissolution of the technology startup and the loss of his investor’s money should have greater fall out for Kroll’s character than it does. Other turning points in the story also go nowhere. The infidelity subplot should destroy the family or at least fracture the relationship between the lead characters but the filmmakers treat this poorly and tie off the narrative far too neatly. The romance between Kroll and Garcés’ characters also comes to an inauspicious ending. The momentum of the story is leading toward a downbeat conclusion but the filmmakers chicken out and wrench the movie in the other direction, resulting in a finale that is supposed to reaffirm something about family values but it is simplistic and vague and out of tune with the rest of the picture.

Bottom Line: Adult Beginners has some good stuff in it, especially the performances by Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, and Bobby Cannivale. But the filmmakers lose their nerve in the ending and so it is a compromised movie that disingenuously tries to be uplifting. 

Episode: #541 (May 10, 2015)