Rich dicks. Blubbering gigolos. Obnoxious shock jocks. Nick Kroll has played them all, using his cartoon features—that giant toothy grin, those eyes that droop or bug out as needed—to occupy half the roles on his now-defunct and often brilliant Kroll Show. With Adult Beginners, Kroll adds a slightly more evolved male specimen to his repertoire, one that wouldn’t fit as neatly into the actor’s sketch-comedy ship of fools. The character, Jake, is a down-on-his-luck tech entrepreneur playing “manny” for his pregnant sister, Justine (Rose Byrne), who offers a few months of rent-free living in exchange for looking after her 3-year-old son. Jake’s not very good at babysitting. He’s not very good at a lot of things, in fact, save for moping around and making sarcastic remarks. But this is a Nick Kroll character we’re talking about. Compared to, say, Bobby Bottleservice or The Douche, Jake is basically a model of well-adjusted manhood. And that’s before the movie has started pushing him toward belated enlightenment.
More than just Kroll’s first bona-fide starring vehicle, Adult Beginners is also the mildest showcase imaginable for his talents. Last year, Kroll Show co-star Jenny Slate—the Liz B to his Liz G—offered her own change-of-pace indie, breaking out of the bubble of small-screen supporting work with a big-screen demonstration of her charms. Obvious Child was sweet, casually progressive, and fitfully hilarious. Adult Beginners, by contrast, is mostly just… nice. Neither dramatic enough to qualify as drama nor amusing enough to completely succeed as comedy, it’s the kind of movie that coasts on pleasantness, content to elicit a few smiles before disappearing from memory banks.
In reality, the film has more in common with The Skeleton Twins, a year-old Sundance smash starring moonlighting sketch-comedy players as estranged siblings, than it does with Obvious Child. Byrne’s settled-down character, like the one Kristen Wiig embodied in the earlier movie, has a lovable lug of a husband, played by full-time lovable lug Bobby Cannavale. And again, some bad blood flows between brother and sister: Justine, who now owns the house they grew up in, abandoned her own ambitions to take care of their dying mother, while narcissistic, money-obsessed Jake lived large in Manhattan. Yes, Adult Beginners belongs to that class of comedy that equates growing up with giving everything to family, as though career aspirations are for those who haven’t figured it all out yet. Jake, it’s clear, will eventually learn to love uncle duty—but not before dragging the tyke around in a suitcase (he can’t figure out the stroller!) and hooking up with another nanny (Paula Garcés). And maybe both siblings will get over their fear of water; the title, naturally, has a dual meaning, taken as it is from a course for grown-ups who can’t swim.
If Adult Beginners feels kind of shapeless, nudging its characters along with little urgency, maybe that’s by design. “You need some structure,” Justine tells Jake at one point, the film essentially blaming its own lackadaisical rhythms on its dejected hero. There’s some insight sprinkled throughout: Married screenwriting team Liz Flahive (Nurse Jackie) and Jeff Cox (Blades Of Glory) have a young child of their own, making them more than qualified to investigate the seriocomic havoc an infant can wreak on one’s autonomy. (Cannavale, in the film’s most nuanced performance, wrestles poignantly with that dilemma.) But the laughs are scattered, with first-time director Ross Katz relying far too heavily on cameos—Joel McHale, Jane Krakowski, Bobby Moynihan, and Jason Mantzoukas all make brief, unmemorable appearances—to shoulder the comedic weight. What he really needed was a scene as inspired as the lip-sync duet in The Skeleton Twins. Or maybe just something more productive for Kroll to do than learn a valuable life lesson in slow motion. If Adult Beginners gives the comic chameleon a career boost, more power to it. He deserves sharper material than this.