Nick Kroll Nails the Transition From Sketch TV to Indie Movies in ‘Adult Beginners’

Last month, Comedy Central’s Kroll Show came to an end — not due to dwindling ratings or network indifference, but because its creator/star decided, simply, “We’re done… as opposed to stringing out more seasons, we wanted to feel like we were going out with the best work that we’ve done.” Not to worry, though; Kroll retiring the show that bears his name doesn’t mean that he’s stepping out of the spotlight (nor does it mean, sadly, that NBC finally picked up the option on that “Crazy Ira and the Douche” Parks and Rec spin-off I keep writing spec scripts for). In fact, right on schedule, here we have his first starring role in a feature film, Ross Katz’s Adult Beginners, which functions as both an enjoyably modest comedy/drama and a bit of a sales pitch for Nick Kroll, Movie Star.

Kroll plays Jake, a would-be entrepreneur developing a kind of off-brand Google Glass; no sooner has he secured his funding from friends and New York finance types than the bottom falls out. Transformed from hot shit to social pariah overnight, he slinks off to his Connecticut childhood home, currently inhabited by his sister (the wonderful Rose Byrne), her husband (good ol’ Bobby Cannavale), and their little boy. He first asks if he can stay a couple of nights, but that doesn’t hold for long; about a half a minute later, he asks, “If it’s a couple of months, is that OK? Three months?”

Bobby Canavale, Rose Byrne, and Nick Kroll in "Adult Beginners"

Soon enough, he’s back in his childhood room, listening to tapes on his old Walkman, and earning his keep by babysitting the kid. He puts his life on hold for a while, has a casual sexual relationship with another kid’s nanny, and does his best to help his sister. For a good long while, the movie plays his cut-down douchebag homecoming for laughs, and then (with the help of some distressingly on-the-nose music cues), it starts to get serious, with big dramatic beats that arrive fairly predictably.

As you can guess, none of this is altogether groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t well done — almost calculatingly so. In fact, the most striking thing about Adult Beginners is how savvy it all is. Kroll could easily gone the SNL route, courting movie stardom by blowing up one of his Kroll Show characters into a broad, dumbed-down, mainstream comedy. (If he didn’t field at least a half-dozen offers to do a Bobby Bottleservice movie, I’ll eat my hat.) But he’s a bright enough guy to know that the vast majority of those movies suck, functioning as the do at the intersection of stretching a ten-minute character into 90 and appealing to the lowest-common-denominator demo of studio comedy.

Paula Garces and Nick Kroll in "Adult Beginners."

So, instead, he went small. Adult Beginners opens with a credit for “Duplass Brothers Productions,” and while Mark and Jay are only executive producers on this one (they’ve got approximately 34 other movies and television shows going), they’ve got a proven formula for giving mainstream comedy stars like Jonah Hill (Cyrus), Jason Segal (Jeff, Who Lives at Home), and Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins) the take-me-more-seriously once-over. Kroll is credited with co-writing the story, so he made a deliberate choice to front this serio-comic tale; he’s also credited as producer, so he had the good sense to surround himself with terrific character actors and comedians, from a scene-stealing Joel McHale to a wonderfully obnoxious Jane Krakowski to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Mike Birbiglia to the aforementioned Byrne and Cannavale (who are, I hear, a thing in real life, and transfer that ease and comfort with each other into an utterly believable onscreen marriage).

And how’s Kroll? He’s good. The particulars of those other credits almost make the film seem like some kind of demo reel, designed as a “there’s more to me than just wacky characters” vehicle, but the dude’s got some dramatic chops; he taps in to the emotional tough spots, and handles several prickly and complicated scenes between himself and Cannavale with the required nuance. Adult Beginners isn’t terribly memorable, nor is it saying anything bracingly new. But it’s a very charming movie — and, for Kroll, a very smart play.

Adult Beginners is out Friday in limited release.