Note: This review was originally published back in March 2015 as part of our coverage for the SXSW Film Festival.
Going home feels good. That’s why we do it. The familiar smells, the unlimited A/C, the way your old bedroom’s being falsely disguised as a guest room — it’s all comfort food for the soul. That’s Adult Beginners. It’s the first feature film for Ross Katz, an Oscar-nominated producer of kick-ass indies like Lost in Translation and In the Bedroom, and he directs off a screenplay by Jeff Cox (Blades of Glory) and Liz Flahive (Nurse Jackie), which is based on a story by comedian Nick Kroll. And that behind-the-scenes talent is mirrored by an all-star cast that includes Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Joel McHale, Jane Krakowski, Bobby Moynahan, Mike Birbiglia, Jason Mantzoukas, and Josh Charles.
Kroll plays a narcissistic entrepreneur, whose premiere device, “The Minds I,” flops when it can’t secure a key accessory for production. Having poured all of his money into the project, in addition to several supporting financiers, he withdraws from his life in Manhattan and returns to the ‘burbs shamed and broken. His childhood home, however, is now lived in by his sister Justine (Byrne) and her do-gooder husband Danny (Cannavale). They’re also struggling, at least financially, so Jake helps out (and pays his “rent”) by agreeing to watch their three-year-old son and his nephew. Of course, it’s not that easy, and his life changes, and the husband is fooling around with his co-worker, and there’s another offer downtown, and yada, yada, yada.
Look, you’ve seen this film. It’s called Elizabethtown, or Mr. Mom, or Jersey Girl, or The Skeleton Twins, or … you get the point. Every arc and every twist is predictable from the get-go, and the stakes are pretty goddamn low given the circumstances. But, here’s the thing: There’s something truly cozy about this picture and the world that Katz has created. Again, it’s comfort food. If you’re a fan of these types of films — this writer is — and you’ve been following these stars for a long time — this writer has — then it’s a whopping dollop of sweet potatoes and turkey. The chemistry between each lead is uncanny, especially for Kroll and Byrne, and the cameos serve as humorous vignettes.
Watching McHale do lines, or Moynahan riff on The Shining, or Mantzoukas play Toad the Wet Sprocket on stage, or Krakowski doll it up as a swim instructor, or Josh Charles be Josh Charles … you get all the side dishes you could ever ask for in a friendly, easy-to-stomach indie comedy. And they spice up the predictability enough so that it’s not too offensive to the mind that you’re essentially watching a film you’ve seen five, 10, or 15 times beforehand. Kroll also unlocks an area that we haven’t seen from him yet, and it’s always rewarding to watch a comic tap into a new area. As for Byrne and Cannavale, the real-life couple adds a touch of naturalism, with the former proving to be a comedy staple and the latter just being the best guy to watch on screen today.
There’s a lot of heart to this film, too. That doesn’t exactly save it — the ending’s a soft, soft landing into vanilla pudding — but it’s enough to keep it from feeling so remedial. Katz does a sharp job capturing the seasonal air of New York, which does add to the homey vibes that this type of story requires. And although the script could use some originality, Cox and Flahive know their cast well enough to match their respective characters with some ideal lines. Which means that Kroll isn’t the only one with a few zingers to his name; Cannavale and Byrne are just as funny at times.
So no, you don’t need to rush out and see Adult Beginners. However, it’s an ideal Netflix viewing in the near future, when the winter shifts into something awful and the afternoon begs for a little couching. And unlike Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Walk on the Ocean”, essentially the theme of this film, this return to the homestead won’t make you choke, but gulp and smile with leisure. Keyword: comfort food. Did you not get that from all the metaphors yet?