By: Shannon Page
You could be forgiven for feeling like you’ve seen Adult Beginners before – you probably have.
Directed by Ross Katz, the film follows 30-something entrepreneur Jake (Nick Kroll) as he loses everything on the eve of his company’s launch and is forced to move in with his somewhat estranged and pregnant sister Justine (Rose Byrne) and brother-in-law Danny (Bobby Cannavale)in the suburbs. Desperate to stay away from Manhattan and his former business partners, Jake agrees to take care of his three-year-old nephew and discovers what it means to have a family.
The plot of a narcissistic business mogul who learns about the importance of family is, to put it lightly, a bit tired and Adult Beginners has nothing new to contribute. Some of the more overdone aspects of the plot could have been avoided by spending a bit more time on character development.
In the beginning of the film, the audience is given only a very brief look at Jake’s life in Manhattan before everything falls apart and, as such, it’s hard to know what kind of person he is or how we are supposed to feel about what has happened to him. Any emotional connection that the viewer might feel toward the characters in this film is almost totally based on our previous film-going experiences. The result is characters that feel more like “types” than individuals.
The cast does the best that can realistically be expected from them given the material. Some of the film’s themes are a little heavy-handed and it doesn’t take much to push them over the edge. Kroll is likeable but somewhat forgettable as Jake; and Cannavale is solid as Danny. It took me most of the film to warm up to Byrne’s performance, but her on-screen dynamic with Kroll is engaging and the actors convincingly explore the relationship between the two siblings. Joel McHale is memorable in his brief appearance as Jake’s best friend Hudson, a role that unfortunately strikes just a bit too close to McHale’s character on the sitcom Community.
That being said, sometimes formulas work for a reason. Despite its lack of originality, there is something undeniably charming about this film. It knows it isn’t doing anything new and it knows that you know it isn’t trying to do anything new. Ultimately, it’s this self-consciousness that ends up being Adult Beginners’ saving grace. From the self-referential humour that only barely stays within the limits of the fourth wall, to the subtle balance of emotional tension and comedy that Katz juggles throughout, an awareness of the limitations and clichés of its genre keeps things feeling fresh even when we’re traversing well-worn indie-comedy territory. The understated and effective score is another strong point.
Adult Beginners is the usual, and the usual done well. It also serves as a good reminder that movies don’t necessarily need to break new ground to be enjoyable. If you’re looking for something that leans toward predictable and isn’t going to blow your mind, but will certainly be good for a laugh, then give it a watch.