I dread explaining man-child dramedies to the ghosts of the dead. "You see, Grandpa, after your time, a generation paralyzed by the economy and indecision stopped growing up — and started churning out indie movies justifying why not." In the Forties, men fought wars at 18. In 1967, Benjamin Braddock faced accusations of being an aimless slacker at age 21. Reality Bites pushed adulthood to 24. And today, movies like Ross Katz's Adult Beginners parade heroes like 36-year-old comedian Nick Kroll — twice the age of the boys who became men on the beaches of Normandy — as yet another misguided but inherently decent overgrown dude who would be a good guy if only someone would bother to make him, say a girlfriend (40-Year-Old Virgin), a hired girlfriend (Failure to Launch), a father figure (Cyrus), a sibling (Step Brothers), a suicidal sibling (The Skeleton Twins), a baby (Knocked Up), 533 babies (Delivery Man), or, for Kroll's Jake, someone else's baby. In these movies, maturity isn't a hard-won personal quest — there's a passing-the-buck bitterness that someone didn't give them the memo.
Jake is a petulant protagonist, a slick wannabe entrepreneur who loses his friends and fortune to a Google Glass — like folly. He's bankrupt and loathed by every acquaintance except his Manhattan wingman Hudson, king cad Joel McHale, whose casting is shorthand for Man, this guy has zero support system. Jake's forced to squat in his childhood bedroom in a house now run by his pregnant sister Justine (Rose Byrne), her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale, excellent as ever), and their three-year-old son Teddy (Caleb and Matthew Paddock). Justine adopts him, reluctantly, as a babysitter, though Jake is only narrowly more mature than his nephew. He's all ego and no conscience, listlessly moaning about the hardships of his life while Justine scurries around folding the family's laundry.
Director Katz enjoys making Jake repellent, a natural choice for Kroll, who in his stand-up and on Comedy Central's The Kroll Show has made a career of playing people we hate. Kroll's comedy celebrates the modern grotesque: reality-show queens, rich pricks, phony trend-setters, bankrolled morons. Even his face, with its wide mouth and round cheeks, looks molded from a commedia dell'arte mask. His caricatures lack the empathy of his network neighbors Key & Peele. Both will mimic, say, vapid white girls, but while Jordan Peele vibrates with real, if slapstick, anguish, Kroll is more interested in studying bullshit: He asks, "Who's the most full of crap, and how much are they buying their own manure?"
Jake is so insincere he sounds fake even at his most truthful. Greeting the guests at the launch party that opens the film, he beams, "When I look around the room, I see so many people that I love, for their money." His coming-of-age agonies aren't a barbaric yawp — more like an affectless meh.
To Adult Beginners' credit, the film judges him through his sister Justine's eyes. She had adulthood thrust upon her when their mother died. Like dutiful daughters everywhere, she couldn't just opt out like her brother. Byrne's character clings to a charade of parental control. She let Josh fuck up only because it makes her choices look better, even if her choices weren't really her choices and she'd rather rewind them. But Byrne is too smart to play the character straight. She lets her suburban costume slip, dressing up too sexy for a night at a dive bar, inhaling candy in the parking lot of the school where she works, and finally snapping at Jake, "Nobody really expects anything from you."
We, of course, expect that he'll shape up a little, the moral parallel of a couch potato rousing himself to do a dozen pushups. For all its sourness, Adult Beginners is eager to finish sweet, a misanthropic comedy that about-faces to plead for a hug. Yet Jake is too chilly to convincingly melt. Instead, we blink and he's puddled all over the screen. (He'd roll his eyes at his own redemption.) There's a girl, of course, a bored nanny (Paula Garcés) who's down to hook up on his air mattress while the tots play downstairs. But the real connection is between Jake and Teddy, the one person whose wants he knows he can meet: cheddar bunnies, trips to the park, and zero serious conversations about either of their futures. To Jake, loving Teddy is like training wheels for learning how to care about other people's needs — and, as Danny notes, he can hot-potato the kid back to the parents when anything really bad happens.
Like most modern family dramas, Adult Beginners is structured toward the big reveal: What past trauma explains the present? More interesting conflict comes when characters resolve old scars, but we're in a moment when screenwriters mistake withholding information for suspense. Adult Beginners isn't a terrible film. It's dopey and well-meaning and ultimately kind. But it has the misfortune of being a perfect example of a bad trend, just as that trend is mildewing. If men-children like Jake don't outgrow telling their stories, their crib will feel like an artistic prison.