A lot of rich material is at least implicit in Ross Katz’s Adult Beginners: how people balance career fixations against family obligations, how resentments between siblings mutate across decades, how parents spoon-feed fiction to children that’s utterly at odds with their ongoing adult insecurities. After his venture-capital invention scheme goes horribly awry within the time of its own launch party, Jake (Nick Kroll) relocates to the Long Island house where he grew up, dropping in unannounced on his sister, Justine (Rose Byrne), her husband, Danny (Bobby Cannavale), and their three-year old son, Teddy. Jake’s “job” as the kid’s caretaker becomes an extended metaphorical riff on his inability to see what other people are going through, mismatching the foulmouthed thirtysomething schlub with a bright-eyed toddler for scene after scene to redundant comedic payoff.
Given its played-out subject matter and hoary coming-to-terms narrative arc, one’s ability to enjoy Adult Beginners hangs on a tolerance for the ever-popular on-screen man-child—but more to the point, one’s relationship to the faces and personalities on screen. Making the most of a character initially drawn as a harmless meathead, Cannavale gets to contort the most of the three leads; Jake learns some utterly mundane life lessons about compassion by being taken down a peg, but in so doing he also finds out about a pained mini-affair Danny is having on the side. The actor ably portrays a man torn asunder by his piling-up list of responsibilities, in need of what he rationally understands is superficial attention—with the 13-weeks-pregnant Justine practically catatonic during their few quiet moments alone together. Byrne gives Justine a warm, earthy intelligence, leavening an otherwise thanklessly klutzy stock character.
The three leads each shade their roles with fragmentary glimpses of self-awareness that simultaneously complicate the characters and belie the leaden obviousness of the words coming out of their mouths. The film’s ultimate test of Jake’s newfound maturity is, in screenwriting terms, an utter cop-out: In the process of piecing his life back together, Jake gets a new boss who exists on screen solely to belabor work hours over family hours when Jake, fielding a call from his sister, has to abandon a low-stakes boardroom meeting. One of the film’s biggest laughs is the same scene’s capper, wherein a lowly co-worker’s voice is heard whispering, “Fucking intense…” Otherwise, it’s an over-literalized attempt to pump some suspense into the proceedings wherein the screenplay, paradoxically, requires some grown-up characters to act like children so others can shine.