“Um… You can basically take the last three years of my life and light them on fire.”
Some materialistic, ruthless asshole has it all, living the high life in the big city. Until some sort of humbling forces them to run home with their tail between their legs. Back to their suburban or rural roots, where they gradually learn that there’s more to life than money and possessions. That’s a pretty common story convention and sounds like a movie that in no way needs to be made yet again. But maybe it’s such a common story convention because when done well, it works. And when it’s done well, you get a movie like Adult Beginners.
After one small mistake, Jake (Nick Kroll) goes from New York tech investment genius to sleeping on a blow up mattress in his sister’s (Rose Byrne as Justine) spare bedroom. As his suburban sister and brother in law (Bobby Cannavale as Danny) look for ways to improve their own financial situation, they decide to hire Jake on the cheap as a nanny for their three year old son, Teddy (Caleb and Matthew Paddock). Jake’s obviously been gone from his childhood suburban surroundings a long time, and was happy to embrace his Manhattan dickishness as long as he could afford it.
Once back in his childhood home, where Justine and Danny now live, he soon gets into the swing of things again, and finds the support he needs by being with his sister and her family. But opening himself up to them emotionally means learning a few of their own darker secrets. Nothing life shattering, but Jake is there to share the burden of his problems, not take on anyone else’s.
I really liked Adult Beginners. It’s funny while staying real, it’s sweet without ever getting too saccharine, and the problems these people face are real, without ever tugging too hard on the heart strings. The world of Adult Beginners is just so even keeled and believable, that even while the stakes are relatively low by movie terms, they still matter, because these characters make you believe they matter.
It also resists the typical characters I expected from this kind of story. Movie siblings usually come in two categories, polar opposites, or those freakish families where siblings are best friends who know each other’s every thought. Jake and Justine are more realistic than that. They have their differences, but neither is the good, nerdy one, to the other’s black sheep wild child. They count on each other and love each other, but they’ve also become individuals as adults, which means they don’t know each other the same way they did as kids.
Nick Kroll has become more and more visible over the last few years. I first became aware of him as a recurring guest on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast. Then he had a stand up special, then he got main role on the sitcom The League, then he got his own sketch show on Comedy Central. He’s always hilarious, but also always big, silly and broad. Adult Beginners is his first leading movie role, that I’m aware of. Sure, it’s a low budget, festival style movie that not many people will see, but he is the lead, he gets to play it real and dramatic and subtle. And, he nails it.