Adults behaving like children is one of the most firmly established tropes in comedy. After all, who wouldn’t want to turn back the clock and be a kid again? Not wanting to grow up is a natural part of growing up, and while the list of comedies highlighting this is long, it’s not every day a comedy comes along to use this motif as its central theme. Ross Katz’ heartfelt, hilarious, and holistic “Adult Beginners” lives up to its title by doing just that.
A pre-credit sequence introduces us to Jake (Nick Kroll), entrepreneur non-extraordinaire, who is presenting his latest product “Mind’s-I,” similar to Google Glass. He throws words around like “sickest” and “fucking awesome” and never fails to mention the millions of dollars invested in his product. On the eve of the launch, while fooling around with his girlfriend and getting interrupted by his coke-fiend, deadbeat buddy Hudson (Joel McHale), Jake receives the phone call informing him that a rival company beat him to the punch, and everything he’s been working toward for the past three years dissolves. Lost in a narcissistic whirlpool of self-loathing, Jake intends to rethinks his life, and invites himself to his sister’s home, where they grew up. His sister Justine (Rose Byrne) is 13 weeks pregnant, struggling to keep up with her 3-year-old son Teddy, and is at first apprehensive with having Jake back indefinitely. But husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale) welcomes him, eager to share the pressures he and Justine are feeling.
So Jake goes from being an aspiring millionaire to a stay-at-home nanny (or “manny”). When Justine tells him that she and Danny are planning on selling the house, the news hits Jake hard. “Don’t sell our childhood home” he pleads. As Jake becomes more and more comfortable with taking care of Teddy, Justine uses the extra free time and devotes herself to her job at a local high school, whereas Danny smokes pot with Jake and talks about how great their new house is going to be. But one day Jake sees Danny walking out of a massage parlour with another woman, and the dynamic between the three starts to shift.
Director Katz is mostly known for producing dramas “Lost In Translation” and “In The Bedroom” and directing the lauded TV movie “Taking Chance,” starring Kevin Bacon as a military escort officer supervising the return of the body of a young dead soldier. With experience in such austere productions, one wonders what drew him to make his theatrical feature debut with a comedy. But Katz’s pedigree is what makes ’Beginners’ stand out. Various nuances circle the three major characters: Justine longs for the career she left behind in order to take care of her sick mother; Jake needs to connect back to his roots in order to find himself again; Danny wants to be with a wife who will, from time to time, pay attention to his needs as well. Katz won’t be winning any directing awards, but it’s worth noting how his camera never fails to skip an emotional beat, and the film’s pace, after rushing much too hurriedly in the first 10 or so minutes, settles down and allows the balance of drama and comedy to patiently tiptoe over the film’s core messages of identity and maturity.
We can’t fail to mention the comedic side, however. Make no mistake about it, “Adult Beginners” is a bonafide comedy. Writers Jeff Kox and Liz Flahive pepper their script with intelligent humor; witty, sarcastic, and self-deprecating dialogue bounds off. This is made easier when you have Kroll (whose improvisational chops are shown off to great effect here), Byrne and Cannavale; an unlikely but absolutely dynamite trio who bounce off each other with chemistry and class. Byrne has been gaining more and more confidence in comedy (“Bridesmaids,” “Neighbors”) and Cannavale plays a less stressed out version of his brilliant turn in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”; both are outstanding and make ‘Beginners’ an effortlessly endearing watch. And when it comes to the drama, all three (Kroll included, which is something of a surprise seeing as he’s had the least amount of experience as such) more than hold their own and are never over-the-top when adding emotional layers to their characters. Rounding off the cast are a handful of fantastic supporting bits from McHale, Jane Krakowski, and particularly Bobby Moynihan, who plays one of Jake’s old high school friends and is contagiously entertaining.
It’s not perfect, but as far as feature debuts go, there’s very little you can fault “Adult Beginners” for. Slightly pedantic and maudlin at times, with telegraphed metaphors and some rushed pacing, it’s still hard to call any of these hiccups major flaws. Katz, with the help of an inspired cast and an emotionally intelligent and mature screenplay, has succeeded in depicting the trials and tribulations of adults who, all for respectfully different yet equally weighty reasons, often make a three-year-old the most mature person in the room. [B+]