Film Reviews

Adult Beginners Crams Kroll Into a Played-Out Arc

I dread explaining man-child dramedies to the ghosts of the dead. "You see, Grandpa, after your time, a generation paralyzed by the economy and indecision stopped growing up — and started churning out indie movies justifying why not." In the '40s, men fought wars at 18. In 1967, Benjamin Braddock faced accusations of being an aimless slacker at age 21. Reality Bites pushed adulthood to 24. And today, movies like Ross Katz's Adult Beginners parade heroes like 36-year-old comedian Nick Kroll — twice the age of the boys who became men on the beaches of Normandy — as yet another misguided but inherently decent overgrown dude who would be a good guy if only someone would bother to make him, say a girlfriend (40-Year-Old Virgin), a hired girlfriend (Failure to Launch), a father figure (Cyrus), a sibling (Step Brothers), a suicidal sibling (The Skeleton Twins), a baby (Knocked Up), 533 babies (Delivery Man), or, for Kroll's Jake, someone else's baby. In these movies, maturity isn't a hard-won personal quest — there's a passing-the-buck bitterness that someone didn't give them the memo.

Jake is a petulant protagonist, a slick wannabe entrepreneur who loses his friends and fortune to a Google Glass–like folly. He's bankrupt and loathed by every acquaintance except his Manhattan wingman Hudson — king cad Joel McHale. He's forced to squat in his childhood bedroom in a house now run by his pregnant sister Justine (Rose Byrne), her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale), and their 3-year-old son Teddy. Justine adopts him, reluctantly, as a babysitter, though Jake is only narrowly more mature than his nephew.

Director Katz enjoys making Jake repellent, a natural choice for Kroll, who in his stand-up and on Comedy Central's The Kroll Show has made a career of playing people we hate. Kroll's comedy celebrates the modern grotesque: reality-show queens, rich pricks, phony trend-setters, bankrolled morons. Kroll is interested in studying bullshit: He asks, "Who's the most full of crap, and how much are they buying their own manure?"

Jake is so insincere he sounds fake even at his most truthful. Greeting the guests at the launch party that opens the film, he beams, "When I look around the room, I see so many people that I love, for their money." His coming-of-age agonies aren't a barbaric yawp — more like an affectless meh.

We, of course, expect that he'll shape up a little, the moral parallel of a couch potato rousing himself to do a dozen pushups. For all its sourness, Adult Beginners is eager to finish sweet, a misanthropic comedy that about-faces to plead for a hug. Yet Jake is too chilly to convincingly melt. Instead, we blink and he's puddled all over the screen. (He'd roll his eyes at his own redemption.) There's a girl, of course, a bored nanny (Paula Garcés) who's down to hook up on his air mattress while the tots play downstairs. But the real connection is between Jake and Teddy, the one person whose wants he knows he can meet: cheddar bunnies, trips to the park and zero serious conversations about either of their futures. To Jake, loving Teddy is like training wheels for learning how to care about other people's needs.

Like most modern family dramas, Adult Beginners is structured toward the big reveal: What past trauma explains the present? More interesting conflict comes when characters resolve old scars, but we're in a moment when screenwriters mistake withholding information for suspense. Adult Beginners isn't a terrible film. It's dopey and well-meaning and ultimately kind. But it has the misfortune of being a perfect example of a bad trend, just as that trend is mildewing.

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications – DenverWestword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly – and in VMG’s film partner, the Village Voice.

Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.