Adult Beginners

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday April 24, 2015

Bobby Cannivale, Rose Byrne, and Nick Kroll star in 'Adult Beginners'
Bobby Cannivale, Rose Byrne, and Nick Kroll star in 'Adult Beginners'  

The title of "Adult Beginners" stakes a claim within a relatively new genre: The arrested-development comedy. We've seen these films en masse since "The 40-Year Old Virgin" helped usher nerd culture into mainstream comedy ten years ago. They star schlubby-looking guys like Seth Rogen, and play out a narrative where an underachiever -- painfully immature, and usually saddled with substance abuse issues -- is reformed with the help of friends, family, or a girlfriend. But "Beginners" also represents a second kind of film comedy: It feels a lot like television. It'll be playing on VOD the same day it opens in theaters. It's small.

Nick Kroll ("The Kroll Show," "Parks and Recreation," "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt") plays Jake, a tech-industry washout who's crashed directly onto his sister's couch after losing the life savings of a fair few investors. (He also came up with the story for the film, and produced it.) Jake is the type to say "Thank you, and you're welcome" during a business pitch, or to make a joke about roofies during the first five minutes of a conversation. He's the last guy you'd expect Justine (Rose Byrne, as the sister) and Danny (Bobby Cannavale, her husband) to employ to babysit their toddler. So... this being a screen comedy that reeks of sitcom... that's exactly what they do.

Hilarity doesn't ensue so much as drollery does. Kroll and his crew (Ross Katz directs, while Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive handled scripting duties) never settle on a tone for the picture. Cannavale's character is a cheat, and much melodrama is mined from his wandering ways. But then you'll get broadside sequences like the one where Jake is faced with a need to defecate during his babyshitting shift, and manages the problem by using the baby's miniature toilet -- strapped to his ass like a backpack -- while chasing the kid around. The issue isn't that it's "low humor," but that the gag's lowness can't help but cheapen everything else the movie is trying to do. It's the type of ingratiating button sewn onto television comedies right before they go to commercial.

Speaking of which, "Beginners" has been loaded up with a number of standouts from the network comedy scene: Jane Krakowski serves as a Type-A swimming instructor who helps work the clan through their anxieties (none of them can swim), while Joel McHale plays an exaggeratingly debauched friend from Jake's coke-blowing past. They do their share of throwing the movie off-balance, too: Everyone in the cast seems to be out to steal their scenes with wide-eyed mugging and leaned-on punchlines, but they're all working toward differing dramatic ends. This isn't an actor's movie, nor much of a screen comedy; it's a sitcom showcase.