SXSW Film review: Chemistry between Kroll and Byrne carries ‘Adult Beginners’


“Adult Beginners” starts cold with a tech sales pitch from a self-aggrandizing doofus named Jake (the hilarious Nick Kroll of “Kroll Show”). Using false humility blended with smarm he sells his revolutionary wearable tech gadget that is an obvious rip of Google Glass.

The sales bit turns out to be a video he is playing in a condo full of beautiful, rich people who have invested millions in his new tech product. Watching his friends do cocaine, envisioning his future millions, and blowing as hard as any skeevy self-involved blowhard imaginable. For about five minutes.

The opening few minutes of the SXSW entry that screened feel like a “Rich Dicks” sketch on “Kroll Show,” then something happens you usually don’t see on that show, comeuppance. The pending multi-million dollar deal falls apart, Jake loses all of his money and, banished from Manhattan, ends up drunk on a train back to his childhood home in New Rochelle.

His sister Justine (Rose Byrne) greets him with the surprise and measured enthusiasm of one who has been disappointed by the Jake Show before. She’s busy juggling her child, laundry, and pending sale of her family’s house. So when Jake asks to crash for a few months, she feels a bit overwhelmed.

Over the years Kroll has perfected the wide-eyed shock and pitifulness of a selfish man-child, and he applies it with ease to the oblivious and entitled Jake. After a very brief discussion with her husband Danny (basset hound with five-o-clock shadow Bobby Cannavale), big sis decides to take her little brother in, with one condition, he serve as nanny to their adorable three-year-old, Teddy.

That agreement sets up the type of adult-child slapstick you might expect in an Adam Sandler movie or any broad comedy, but Kroll brings nuance to the part, his put-upon frustration and comic timing making his not-so-likable character very believable (even if the fictional predicament seems forced). The exchanges, whether between spoiled brother and overwhelmed sister, or sweet kid and wacky uncle, are all grounded and don’t distract from the larger story of people trying to get their arms around their lives.

The unexpected predicament of whiny little brother and mature older sister trying to reconcile each other’s lives is not a new trope in dramedies such as these, but, as Jake reintegrates himself into the family, Kroll and Byrne find a palpable sense of care for one another. It helps that Kroll can use his face as well as any actor to draw laughs from the audience, and Byrne can illicit empathy and compassion with her gentle, plaintive eyes.

First-time feature director Ross Katz, in a story written by Kroll and unkowns Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive, served as a producer on “Lost in Translation,” and that movies theme of wandering and looking for connection resonates here, as well. The movie speeds up in the final act, forcing some unbelievable sequences that feel welded onto the script for necessity. That incongruity with the rest of the film’s more organic action makes for a quick landing, but the good faith won in the earlier part of the story helps to smooth the bumps.

 “Adult Beginners” came into SXSW with distribution and will be in theaters later this year. 

Author: Matthew Odam

Restaurant critic & features writer at Austin American @Statesman and @Austin360. Austin-born 6th generation Texan. Left-handed.

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