Yet another indie comedy seemingly inspired by Robert Frost’s verse from “The Death of the Hired Man” about how “home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in,” “Adult Beginners” has everything going for it aside from a reason to exist. Starring Nick Kroll (“Kroll Show,” “The League”), the film begins with the financial ruin of its lead, Jake, who forgot to dot the i‘s and cross the t‘s at an essential moment in his entrepreneurial journey, bankrupting himself and harming his investors.
Exiled from his happy costly life in Manhattan with his fair-weather friends, Jake gathers a few belongings and even less pride and heads back to New Rochelle, New York (a signifier of suburbia since its use in 1961 as the setting of “The Dick Van Dyke Show”) to crash with his big sister Justine (Rose Byrne) and her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale) for a few … months.
Based on Liz Flahive and Jeff Cox’s script (from a story by Kroll), “Adult Beginners” locks into its plot’s ascension to complication, slow descent to cruising altitude and a too-safe landing on the happy-ending tarmac as though it were on autopilot. The basics here are so very basic that you keep waiting for some or another complication or backswing or hidden trick to reveal itself, but it never does. Instead, Justine and Danny figure they can use Jake to get some help with their three-year-old son, Teddy. (Danny: “He can watch Teddy.” Justine: “Like watch him watch him? No. No.”) Jake begins reluctantly, but does well by doing good and, through his care for Teddy and his sister and even Danny, he becomes a (vaguely) better person.
Anyone familiar with Kroll’s work on “The League” or eponymous Comedy Central sketch program (wrapping up its third and final season) will wonder if Kroll’s zingy, broad energy can be poured into something as staid and solid as a feature-film character. In his sketch comedy and sitcom work, Kroll’s strong features and bright eyes turn him into a human cartoon character, as if he were drawn by Al Hirschfeld on a particularly inspired day. While Kroll acquits himself well here as big-screen actor, his talent only underscores how little the script actually gives him to do.
The film has intelligence and wit in the design and costuming: In an effort to sell the childhood home she now lives in, Julia has put sconces on every possible wall; at their mutual swimming class, Jake and Teddy have matching orange-octopus-on-blue-fabric trunks. But there’s nothing here that actually digs deep enough into any of the films’ surface-level concerns — maturity, responsibility, parenting, siblinghood — to snap the movie out of its own slumber. Director Ross Katz, a producer in his former life, keeps the film moving from scene to scene, but you can feel the script’s basic nature suck energy and power from it as each scene transitions to the next.
Byrne and Cannavale (apparently a real-life couple) are fine as Justine and Danny, dealing with the realities of marriage: one kid, another on the way, creeping monotony and some infidelity. There are a few scenes here that speak of some fine writing, where you sense that both the love and the dissatisfaction the characters feel for each other have intertwined and deep-stretching roots, but they’re fewer and farther between than one would hope. “Adult Beginners” takes its title from a for-novices class Jake and Justine might benefit from as they awkwardly take Teddy for his swimming lessons, implying that it’s never too late to make a good start and move forward. The irony is that the film itself is content merely to make small splashes in the shallower end of its own story.