Not every film is greater than the sum of its parts. Case in point: the cast for last year’s indie dramedy Adult Beginners is just oozing with talent, but the film itself if a little mushy & muddled in a way that can’t help but underwhelm. A Duplass Bros production starring Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Jane Krakowski, Jason Mantzoukas, and Bobby Cannavale sounds like a perfect formula for a lowkey drama with real emotional & comedic staying power, but Adult Beginners struggles to be much more than light entertainment with a promising premise & a failure to launch. The film is serviceably entertaining as decent Sunday afternoon romcom viewing fare, but I expected a little more out of it considering the level of talent involved. It’s an enjoyable film, but not a particularly efficient or memorable one.
Nick Kroll begins Adult Beginners as a cocaine-addicted sexual deviant with an endless appetite for greedy monetary gains, displays of power, and notoriety among his sycophant peers. In other words he’s a run of the mill NYC business man (in movie speak, at least). When his empire inevitably crumbles & he becomes a business world pariah, he has to move back home under the roof of his somewhat estranged sister (Byrne) & her increasingly emotionally distant husband (Cannavale). In order to pull his weight & learn humility, Kroll’s heartless business prick must care for the stressed couple’s hyperactive child Teddy,. He treats Teddy like a monstrous terror, but the truth is the kid is just a perfectly normal toddler. Not much changes once this comedic set up is established. The family learns to adjust & become comfortable with its unexpected shift in household dynamic & Kroll’s broken protagonist learns to become comfortable acting like a decent, empathetic human being. Throw in a third act crisis to shake things up a bit & a rapid resolution to that last minute monkey wrench and you have your basic outline of a typical romcom-style dramedy with an exceedingly charming cast.
Part of the reason why Adult Beginners is so frustrating is that it could’ve been so much more than that kind of charming, but ambitionless middle ground. I smelled trouble as soon as the opening scroll announced a “Story By” credit for three different writers (Kroll among them). At Adult Beginners‘s worst moments it feels like it was compiled from a Frankenscript of several half-cooked stories that didn’t quite come together as a cohesive whole. Byrne’s stressed out mother has troubling alcohol addiction & workplace politics issues that threaten to complicate her livelihood & her pregnancy, but never amount to any clear kind of narrative conflict. Kroll’s business douche protagonist never really shows any personal growth or epiphany within the film other than growing increasingly comfortably with his role as a “manny” (man nanny). Cannavale’s gloomy husband admits his mistake in growing distant, but the couple’s reconciliation is never on public display. Worse yet, the film’s central/titular metaphor about an “adult beginners” swimming class is lazily introduced & referenced only briefly, never materializing into anything too significant or incisive. It’s tempting to think of these half-cooked ideas as intentionally understated narrative & character beats, but the film never really earns enough confidence to warrant that kind of patience & understanding. It’s a messy movie that only remains endearing through the sheer will of its talented cast. It’s not something I’d recommend as a greatly orchestrated, highly impactful small scale drama, but it’ll do as light viewing when you’re in need of this kind of cinematic comfort food. The letdown is that there are germs of two or three much better movies lurking just right under the surface of that mediocrity.