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SXSW Review: Adult Beginners

The comic combination of Nick Kroll, Rose Bryne and Bobby Cannavale is enough to sell this wry but formulaic family-member-moves-home farce wholesale. Ironic that Bryne and Cannavale just co-starred side-by-side in Paul Feig's underwhelming Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy as arms dealing peers and they here play another side to partners in crime as a husband and wife duo who must make room for Kroll when a failed business investment forces him out of the big city.

Kroll earned notoriety playing the supernaturally dickish Rodney Ruxin on FX's hit The League before launching his own sketch comedy The Kroll Show. With the later on its final season (it only got four) and the former taking a huge dive in ratings this past season, Kroll has extended his acidic humor to the world of film and if Adult Beginners is any indication, he might have found a new home. Going into the feature, I worried that Kroll's resume suggested an inability to play sincerity onscreen but Adult Beginners rights any lingering concerns about that. There's even a potent scene where the Rux drops tear. An honorary Shiva trophy unto him.  


Having dumped all his resources into wearable tech that his Chinese producers botched entirely, Kroll's Jake drops out of the buzzy environs of the inner city and feels compelled to retreat to the suburbs to escape VM death threats and sky-high city loft rent rates. At his childhood home lives sister Justine (Bryne), her husband Danny (Cannavale) and their appropriately difficult 3-year old son. Though Jake wants to sulk and sleep through a few months of respite from high-stakes business, Justine and Danny agree to house him, but only if he'll play babysitter. Playground accidents and the difficulty of getting personal pooping time challenges Jake but ultimately teaches him an invaluable lesson about family and commitment.  

Yes, this sounds like a half dozen comedy/drama concepts we've seen before but Adult Beginners doesn't attempt to distinguish itself by narrative uniqueness. Rather, it thrives on the strength and complexity of its adult characters and their complicated relationships. The comedy executed is smart and biting and Kroll employs his sharp-toothed, droopy eyed shtick whenever he can.

Bobby Moynihan appears in the middle of the film as a washed-up quite-not-former-friend of Jake to illicit what is easily the most chuckle-heavy scene of the film. His shameless line of questioning and oblivious nature towards what is and is not appropriate makes him supporting comedy gold. Conversely, Kroll's League co-star Jason Mantzoukas fails to muster a laugh as a "manny" (male nanny) with a dad rock side project.

Though Jake and Justine begin their new relationship on estranged footing, director Ross Katz is never estranged from the strengths of  Adult Beginners - a cast that can operate equally well in dramatic and comedic situations, a smart script from Kroll and genuine moments of emotional and intellectual progress.

As Jake is advised in a business meeting, there are two highways in life and the fast road to success is one you have to travel alone. In the past, Jake has always chosen the door to career advancement and dollar bills, ignoring the people who make life actually worthwhile. As Jake and Justine content with the ups and downs of their strained though improving relationship, Adult Beginners turns into a kind of rom-com between siblings. 60 years of rom-com history have told us that things always end up peachy but Adult Beginners is one of the rare few that actually earns its peachy flavor.


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