Career setbacks, marital woes, the bonds of family and the challenges of child rearing make for familiar but sturdy entertainment in “Adult Beginners,” a warmly appealing dramedy about two grown-up siblings who reconnect at an uneasy moment in their lives. Boasting the relationship-movie smarts and low-budget polish typical of the Duplass Brothers’ work (they’re credited as exec producers), this sophomore directing effort for Ross Katz (“Taking Chance”) resolves itself a bit too tidily in the final stretch, but sustains affection most of the way with its well-observed moments and gently offbeat comic rhythms. Although the pic should serve as a handy feature-length introduction to the talents of TV actor-comedian Nick Kroll, its most bankable element is easily Rose Byrne, whose post-“Neighbors” profile should give “Beginners” a bit of a head start in commercial release via Radius-TWC.
We first meet Manhattan entrepreneur Jake (Nick Kroll) doing a commercial to promote a hot new form of wearable technology — a business venture that has crashed and burned by the end of the opening credits, costing him millions of dollars in investment coin and almost all his friends. Completely broke, devoid of connections or prospects, Jake decides there’s no better time to get out of the city and pay a long-overdue visit to his older sister, Justine (Byrne), who lives out in the suburbs with her husband, Danny (Bobby Cannavale), and their 3-year-old son, Teddy (played by Caleb and Matthew Paddock). Big sis, who’s busy with work and expecting a second child, isn’t exactly thrilled to see her brother at first — a reaction that may well be shared by the audience, given how openly needy, inconsiderate and self-absorbed Jake seems as he settles in for a period of indefinite hibernation.
But Justine and Danny see the upside of the situation when they realize Jake can watch Teddy during his copious free time, lightening their stress load for a mere $300 per week. And before long, in keeping with the cinematic laws of redemption through childcare, Jake’s hapless early attempts to look after Teddy — rolling him around a park using a suitcase rather than a stroller, getting distracted while the boy falls and hurts himself on the playground — shift into a genuinely loving, attentive uncle-nephew rapport. Naturally, Jake’s presence will also expose some of the cracks and fissues in Justine and Danny’s marriage, while the siblings will be forced to assess the damage they’ve done to each other, and to reaffirm the fragility and resilience of their bond.
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To the credit of the husband-and-wife writing duo of Jeff Cox (“Blades of Glory”) and Liz Flahive (TV’s “Nurse Jackie”), collaborating for the first time, these fairly predictable developments emerge in generally unforced and gently amusing fashion. The abruptness of the setup aside, everything that happens seems to do so at the casual, unhurried pace of everyday life, and the scribes have a nice way of teasing out the nuances in their characters’ sometimes prickly yet mostly well-meaning interactions, enhanced by the actors’ ability to suggest a sense of shared history. Although working in an entirely different vein from that of “Taking Chance,” his sobering HBO telepic about a soldier’s journey home from Iraq, Katz shows a similar level of tact and precision even in this faster, funnier register, allowing his actors to go quiet and dig deeper beneath each layer of laughs.
Kroll, with his slanted, full-lipped smile and eyebrows that suggest oft-raised quote marks, has one of those wonderfully elastic, smushable faces that can turn from maddening to endearing on a dime, and he soon becomes an ingratiating presence despite those trying early reels. Whininess gives way to deadpan, never more caustic than when the urbane, cultured Jake (who uses the theme from “The Shining” as his cell-phone ringtone) comes face to face with the sort of dull hometown hanger-on he’d hoped never to run into again. As the more stable, put-together of the two sibs, Byrne is acting in a more subdued straight-woman register than she did in “Bridesmaids” and “Neighbors”; both actress and character provide a reassuring presence for the viewer to latch onto, even when Justine’s own world begins to unravel.
Garces is winning as an attractive fellow nanny whom Jake begins sleeping with under the pretext of arranging a kids’ playdate, a development that winks playfully and somewhat frighteningly at the possible existence of underground babysitter sex rings everywhere. In the role of a far-from-perfect family man, Cannavale proves as likable and big-hearted as ever; the subtleties of Danny’s relationship with Jake are particularly well drawn, suggesting equal measures of rivalry and camaraderie. Their habit of retreating to the garage to smoke a joint becomes a charming motif throughout, cementing the brotherly bond while neatly summing up the desire to flee from grown-up responsibility that provides “Adult Beginners” with its key theme.
It’s the sort of casual hangout vibe that feels so lived-in, it’s a shame when the film begins to devolve into the sort of rigged reconciliations and easy epiphanies it had largely avoided, up to a point. Old resentments are duly dredged up; awful mistakes are too quickly swept under the rug; lessons about the difficulty of choosing family over career (smoothly delivered via Josh Charles as a neighbor who offers Jake a possible career opportunity) are indelicately hammered home. A key subplot in which Jake and Justine take mommy-and-me swimming lessons with Teddy, forcing them to confront their own latent aquaphobia, explains the film’s title, but feels too patly symbolic by half. Still, those imperfections are forgivable, even fitting, for a modest, well-assembled charmer that represents a welcome branching out for most of the key talents involved.