My review shorthand is usually to give some sort of tease as to my overall opinion of the movie right at the get-go, often by some sort of comparison to a movie you might have seen. Usually, I try to be subtle and hide the pattern.
Today, for Adult Beginners, I’m leaning into it. Did you see The Skeleton Twins? It’s ok if you didn’t, it never made it to a super-wide release (which is a shame, because it was a really good movie), but I bring it up because this movie is a nearly beat-for-beat match of that one, especially in the premise: after undergoing some sort of life trauma, the brother, in this case Jake (played by Nick Kroll) moves in with his estranged sister to whom he was very close as a child. The sister, here it’s Justine (Rose Byrne), has some problems of her own, namely a pregnancy and relational strains with both her aw-shucks-good-guy husband (Bobby Cannavale) and her arrested development brother. The divergence is in the details.
But of course, the details matter, particularly in a movie that’s all about the tension of interpersonal relationships. In that respect, Adult Beginners is undoubtedly a success, albeit less of one than The Skeleton Twins. (And I am sorry, they’re just too similar not to talk about in relation to one another.) Adult Beginners is a tamer version of this type of story. I don’t mean that in a derogatory fashion, exactly; the characters feel unflinchingly true to life. But if you’re comparing a character arc about finding self-worth after a suicide attempt to a character arc about overcoming a professional bummer, execution being equal, the suicide story is more dramatically compelling.
The same is true of the comedy here. Because the characters are ever so slightly more grounded in what might be broadly describes as “normalcy,” there’s never a chance for a scene like this:
Adult Beginners goes for more of a “f*** the world” dry style of humor than a “smile and laugh in spite of the world” style. Again, that’s not an inherently bad thing, but it does limit the total possible emotional range of the movie.
The good news is that the execution is pretty much all there, especially when it comes to the cast. Rose Byrne can do no wrong as of late, and is once again stellar. Kroll, who also has a story credit here, shows he’s capable of anchoring a feature, even though Jake’s character arc ends up feeling a little bit undercooked. But it’s Bobby Cannavale who stuck out to me. He nails a surprisingly intricate father figure, drawing out the sympathy in a character who’s not always sympathetic. After a strong, but limited, showing in last year’s Chef, it’s fun to see him in a slightly expanded capacity here.
The only place, besides the comparative lack of range, where the movie feels like it really might be letting itself down is in the two sexual relationships of the film, between Justine and husband Danny, and between Jake and a nanny he meets while taking care of his nephew. It’s difficult to say too much without getting into places I’d rather not spoil, but both feel a bit too on-the-nose. The trials of child rearing have thrust themselves into Justine and Danny’s lives, helped along by Jake’s presence in some ways that are too expected. And meanwhile Jake’s relationship with Blanca (that’s the nanny, played by Paula Garces) is little more than a vehicle to express his emotional immaturity. It is both a new trial and a catalyst for other conflict within his character arc, but the changes in character that Jake experiences never have a chance to show up in his intimate relationships. The relationship with Blanca is hardly central to the plot, but it does feel a bit strange that something so important to Jake’s eventual growth doesn’t have direct payoff.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
Go watch Adult Beginners and have fun with it. It’s a pretty fun character study and dramady, if you’re into such things. (I am.) Nick Kroll steps up in a heartfelt story that benefits from strong performances by Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale alongside him. Have fun, but be aware that there are better movies of more or less (more) the same ilk.