With an awful lot of American indies, there appears to be some sort of self-regulation in place preventing any serious highs or lows, any stylistic risks or surprises. Even if the scripts juggle comedy and drama in quick succession, it’s as if they’re under the influence of mood stabilizers. The quirk’s the thing, but too often it’s well-acted, neatly scripted quirk in search of some flesh and blood.
Some of those indies made for decent company anyway, usually because of who’s onscreen. Though not a family film in the Ice Age 3 sense, the new comedy Adult Beginners has a familial vibe. The writers, Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive, are married; insanely prolific executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass, responsible for a large percentage of indies released each year, are brothers; two of the leading performers, Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale, have been dating for years.
The story of Adult Beginners is that of Jake, a self-centered Manhattan entrepreneur played by Nick Kroll. (Kroll, who resembles the less schlubby nephew of Jon Lovitz, instigated the project.) Jake’s latest startup company flames out in the opening minutes, leading to a move back to New Rochelle into the house where he grew up. Broke and bored, he becomes his 3-year-old nephew’s deeply unqualified but increasingly game caregiver.
The relationships are semiplausibly frazzled. With a second child on the way, the Byrne and Cannavale characters, Justine and Danny, have begun to seek romantic attention outside their marriage. Jake, meantime, falls into bed with another caregiver (Paula Garces), while gradually building a bridge back to Justine. Both are coping with unresolved grief over the death of a parent.
The plot is structured, a little too neatly, to nudge Jake into being less of a narcissistic jerk, which always seems like a low bar to set with any comedy-drama. (You need to be as witty as writer Noah Baumbach, per Greenberg, to pull that off.) The relative success or failure of Adult Beginners, directed with a steady, nonjudgmental hand by Ross Katz, depends on how funny you find Kroll. I find him funny-ish. He’s most effective, I think, in the scenes that demand an openly emotional side; his default sarcasm, however low-key, grows wearying after a while.
As for Byrne, she’s excellent and honest and mindful of pace throughout. This actress can save a movie. In small projects or large, in the Annie remake, even, Byrne is a rarity: a versatile performer with an intuitive ability to bounce off any and every scene partner, in all kinds of material—great, lousy, or in this case, fairly/pretty/reasonably effective.
Adult Beginners (R): ★★✩✩✩