‘Adult Beginners’
Ross Katz
Stars: Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Adult Beginners” didn’t screen at Sundance, but it more than most films it feels like it should have. It plays as though made by a computer program. It’s even more Sundancey than “The Skeleton Twins,” which has almost the exact same plot, detailing the reunion of a semi-estranged brother and sister (Nick Kroll and Rose Byrne). He’s had a personal apocalypse: in “Skeleton Twins” it was a suicide attempt; here it’s the leftfield meltdown of a get-rich-quick scheme involving a Google Glass-esque gizmo. He shacks up at her suburban manse in their childhood town to lick his wounds, only to learn that all is not well with sis’ marriage. There are fine performances, plus laughs and tears, and they all come on roughly cue.

None of this is a deal-breaker, mind. Like any genre, a well-calibrated entry that just hits the buttons is like comfort food. And there are worse buttons to be pushed than fine performances and moments of genuine pathos. “The Skeleton Twins” was more downbeat than funny, but “Adult Beginner” is wholly affirmative, complete with the presence of a hyperactive kid. It gets into hairy situations but there’s never a chance they won’t resolve happily. It still goes there. Kroll’s Jake finds himself ruddlerless and none too happy about it, and especially not happy about being back home now that he can’t brag to go-nowhere high school alumni about his wild big city success. Meanwhile Byrne’s Justine seems to have it all…except that she mostly does. She has a young son, with another kid en route, but what ails her are vague anxieties and a too-rarely-sated need for alone time.

“Adult Beginners” winds up a few key plots: Justine’s bro-ish but loving husband, Danny (Bobby Cannavale), is having an affair. It’s a nice twist that he’s not that into to it — that what seemed like a good-bad idea at the time just led to crappy sex. But the script treats it as another minor obstacle on the road to touching late-film reconciliation. Still, it gets more screentime than the one wherein Jake crabbily agrees to look after their chirpy son during the day. Let’s not complain that what looked like a grumpy adult-cute moppet sap-a-thon never comes close to materializing, but "Adult Beginners" has a habit of setting up plots it quickly abandons without replacing them with anything. We learn Jake and Justine ave never learned to swim (symbolic!), and they talk about taking classes, but this too peters out. Its lack of commitment to anything gives “Adult Beginners” a shambling, half-hearted quality.

It’s a charming shambles, though, and the actors are gifted enough to provide real heft in half-sketched characterizations. Byrne was once a sometimes painfully serious (and very good) actress, but being unexpectedly absorbed into the comedy scene — of which she’s now a welcome staple — has loosened her up, turning her into one of the most delightful presences in the movies. Kroll finds a way to make a sour malcontent likable without tempering the sourness, and scenes where he reflects for real on his fading youth and grim future manage to seem real without mucking up his characterization. It’s a take-me-seriously gig that matures him without dulling him. This is a light entertainment with light laughs and light drama (there’s a dead mom brought up once, maybe twice, but largely ignored). With other actors that’s all it would be.

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