REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
The contemporary dramedy, “Adult Beginners,” is a low-budget ensemble piece, which offers both laughs and insights.
In a pre-credits scene, we meet self-absorbed, Gotham hipster, Jake (Nick Kroll). The aspiring entrepreneur has a conjured up the idea of a wearable technology. Dubbed “Minds-I,” it is basically a permutation of so-called Google Glass.
Over the course of past three years, Jake has worked on developing the product. To do so, he has raised money from his friends. Jake is already counting the untold millions that in his mind his product will no doubt make.
Not so fast, Jake. On the cusp of the product’s launch, Jake discovers that it contains a defective part. Meanwhile, a rival company has already introduced an item, which is similar to Minds-I.
At one fell swoop, Jake’s dreams of fame and fortune have been wiped out. His girlfriend, Kat (Caitlin Fitzgerald), immediately dumps him. Meanwhile, Jake’s agitated investors are furious at him.
Jake is consumed with a sense of despair and self-loathing. It’s a good time to head out of Dodge. Where can Jake find as a refuge to lick his psychic wounds?
How about returning to his childhood home in suburban New Rochelle? His mother is dead and his father has remarried and retired to Florida with a new wife. So…who’s living in the old homestead now? Jake’s older sister, high school teacher, Justine (Rose Byrne); her contractor husband, Danny ( ), and their three-year old mop top, Teddy (adorable twins, Caleb and Matthew Paddock) have taken over the comfortable, middle class house. Now, Justine is pregnant with the couple’s second child.
Growing up, Jake and Justine had been close. However, an unspoken tension has developed between them. When their mother grew ill, Justine dropped out of her last semester of law school to take care of her. She never returned to complete her law school education. By contrast, Jake remained in New York, focusing on his personal objectives. Justine feels that she made huge sacrifices, but Jake shirked his filial duties.
Nevertheless, he shows up unexpectedly at Justine’s home. He is met with an ambivalent response from Justine. Does she really want Jake living in her house? Justine claims that she needs to consult her husband. It seems like an obvious ploy, designed to give her an out.
However, Justine doesn’t have a chance to implement her plan. Over dinner, Jake broaches the matter directly with Danny. Jake is mechanically challenged. Nevertheless, Jake proposes that he can help his brother-in-law with nebulously defined stuff. Instead, Danny proposes that Jake work as their nanny. He notes that this will obviate the considerable expense of continuing to send Teddy to pre-school.
The lowly and traditionally female position of nanny constitutes yet another blow to Jake’s self-image as a successful, male entrepreneur. However, since there are no other options on the horizon, Jake begrudgingly agrees to provide child care for Teddy. No surprise – when it comes to being a nanny, Jake is hopelessly inept.
The film does a nice job of exploring interpersonal relationships. This includes the unresolved sibling tensions between Jake and Justine, the marital dynamics between Justine and Danny, the male bonding between Danny and Jake, as well as how all these relationships impact Teddy’s upbringing.
The three lead performances are spot on. Each actor essays a character, who has obvious flaws, but is nevertheless appealing. Nick Kroll exudes a subdued sardonicism. Rose Byrne delivers brilliant line readings. In midsentence, she veers off on a different direction than she started. Bobby Cannavale once again provides a strong presence. He displays the manly charm that was evident in “Blue Jasmine” and “Danny Collins.” Byrne and Cannavale are married in real life. Their obvious comfort together informs their onscreen dynamic.
The film is further enhanced by some engaging minor characters. This includes Jake’s coke-addled friend (Joel McHale); a long-forgotten casual acquaintance from Jake’s high school days (Bobby Moynihan); a humorless swimming instructor, who runs a Mommy and Me aquatics class for tykes (Jane Krakowski); and another au pere (Paula Garces).
Using an original story idea from Kroll, this the first collaboration between husband and wife writing team, Jeff Cox (“Blades of Glory”) and Liz Flahive (TV’s “Nurse Jackie”). They fashion an intelligent screenplay, full of plot developments that seem organic.
Ross Katz is best known for producing films such as “Lost In Translation” and “In The Bedroom.” He did a nice job, helming the highly regarded TV movie “Taking Chance.” The serious-minded film starred Kevin Bacon as a military office accompanying the body of a slain soldier. As director of this film, he displays a nice touch at extracting both humor and poignancy from the script.
It is rare to encounter a film that is both a quirky lark and a perspicacious study of the human condition. A quirky tale of reconciliation, “Adult Beginners” is both.
*** R (for language and some drug use) 90 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.