Review

'Adult Beginners' comically eases into family life's darker side

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
There's a funny dark side to 'Adult Beginners' as estranged siblings Rose Byrne and Nick Kroll reconnect

"Adult Beginners," starring Rose Byrne, Nick Kroll and Bobby Cannavale, is the kind of comedy that goes down easy even as it looks at the hard stuff.

In this case, director Ross Katz is concerned with life's stress fractures and the difficulties of dealing with grown-up siblings who haven't exactly grown up.

The film comes by its funny dark side honestly. Consider its screenwriting troika: Kroll, who has a busy career being droll in his stand-up, on NBC's "Parks and Recreation" and his own sketch comedy shows; Liz Flahive, a playwright involved in the dark irony of Showtime's brilliant "Nurse Jackie" as an executive producer; and Jeff Cox, part of the writing team behind the bizarre Will Ferrell competitive ice skating tale "Blades of Glory." That the indie ended up under the filmmaking umbrella of Jay and Mark Duplass seems a natural since the brothers have turned observational comedy about ordinary people into a full-time business.

"Beginners" begins when Jake (Kroll) learns, midchampagne and caviar, at the Manhattan celebration for the high-tech invention he thinks is about to make millions that instead his career is imploding over a faulty part.

Failure sends him home, which is the suburbs and Justine (Byrne), the sister he's grown distant from. A harried young wife who is pregnant with her second child, Justine lives in the house they both grew up in. Her husband, Danny (Cannavale), is a contractor. Three-year-old nephew Teddy (Caleb and Matthew Paddock) is delightful but demanding — and apparently always on a sugar high. Basically Jake is trading one kind of chaos for another.

With no prospects and no desire to do much except lick his wounds, Jake is soon pressed into becoming Teddy's "manny." In dealing with the reality of actually being responsible for the care and feeding of another human, Jake begins to grow up.

Most of what happens under the extended family roof will seem familiar. Jake discovers his sister's life may be imploding too. His relationship with Danny clicks then comes apart. There's a flirtation, then an affair with Blanca (Paula Garces), one of the moms Jake meets at the playground. All the various conflicts, which do have a sitcom flavor, come to a head when Justine goes into labor.

But like most entertaining movies it's not so much how it ends but the journey.

Katz holds a loose rein, letting his actors rock along like their characters might in real life. Typical is Teddy's manny/mommy-and-me swim class. Neither Jake nor Justine ever learned to swim, and since they are bickering when Teddy is signed up, they force each other to commit to class.

It's a good metaphor since the film is essentially about floundering and trying to keep your head above water. The insights are simple, staying on the surface, which makes for the kind of slight comedy that isn't too demanding. The bare-bones budget keeps the look bare-bones too.

Still, Kroll, Byrne and Cannavale are so comfortable in letting Jake, Justine and Danny live and love and fight it out together, they make you hope that everyone in this particular family learns how to swim.

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'Adult Beginners'

MPAA rating: R for language and some drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Arclight, Hollywood and VOD

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