It’s time we get to our yearly troubled siblings dramedy! Last year, we had the really good and under seen The Skeleton Twins, starring Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig. This year we have the not-quite-as-good-but-still-very-entertaining Adult Beginners with Nick Kroll and Rose Byrne. Now, this film doesn’t have much to say on the nature of sibling relationships, but it’s an incredibly sweet and funny movie filled with layered human beings, making even the “villain” a good person, anchored by two superb performances from its leads and writing always willing to go for a joke, even in serious moments.
Jake (Kroll) is an egomaniac entrepreneur who has put all his time and money into a new tech company, but when the manufacturer of some specific hardware drops out at the last minute, his whole life savings crashes to nothing. With no way to pay rent or for anything else for that matter, he heads over to New Rochelle to live with his pregnant sister, Justine (Byrne), in exchange for taking care of her toddler all day while she teaches at a local high school. The film is all about the importance of family and standing by one another, which I’m sure you could tell by that set up, but thankfully, it has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek the whole time to where it never feels saccharine or too sweet, even if it does lean into a satisfactory sweetness.
A sibling relationship is the only relationship harder to get right on screen than a long term couple. The rhythms and way of communicating with one another is unlike any other relationship one can form, because in someways siblings are the most honest with one another but there is still a myriad of things one holds back on. Even when two siblings haven’t seen each other in a long time, they have a natural rapport with one another due to coming up in the same place. The strength of Adult Beginners rests heavily on the shoulders of Kroll and Byrne to make this a believable sibling relationship, and the two fall into it so easily. It makes the good moments feel great and the bad ones feel even worse. I knew Byrne had the chops to make it work, but Kroll, who I know mostly for his broad character work, reels it all in to make an engaging, complicated guy.
What’s most enjoyable is no one is an out-and-out bad person. When it’s revealed Byrne’s husband (Bobby Cannavale) had a small affair with a co-worker, you never hate the guy. He wants to be a good husband and good father, but he has his own issues that made him do what he did. Yes, it causes a strife between the characters, but he’s never overly judged for his behavior. He comes off just as flawed as the two leads. Also, is it just a requirement Byrne and Cannavale have to be in movies together now? First Annie, then Spy, now this. At least they are getting progressively better.
But what is most important is the humor, and Adult Beginners is really funny, and the jokes are not just Kroll getting to do sarcastic one-liners. The humor is evenly spread amongst all the characters. It doesn’t hurt when your bit part casting includes the likes of Jason Mantzoukas, Joel McHale, Jane Krakowski, and Mike Birbiglia. Even if their part lasts for only three or so minutes, they don’t get the shaft in the jokes. And none of it ever feels like schticky improv they cooked up on the day. It feels like planned character comedy, and even if it turns out it was on-the-day stuff, there’s no wasting of time stretching out jokes, searching for a punchline.
I’m sure many will call this film slight or just another indie dramedy, and I guess it is, but it really worked for me. I cared a lot about the people and laughed a lot. Those are the film’s two biggest goals, and it achieves them both very well. it’s not a film that will make a top ten list or anything like that, but if it comes on, I would probably end up watching the whole thing all over again, if I didn’t already seek it out again myself. You are getting some formula here, but it’s executed extremely well.