Happily Underemployed

The rare Hollywood comedy that advocates work-life balance
Illustration: Jan Buchczik

In the very adult beginning of Adult Beginners, Jake, a New York venture capitalist played by Nick Kroll, quickly proves he’s an unrepentant jerk. “Enjoy your Champagne—it’s filled with roofies!” he shouts at an office party, toasting the investors who’ve sunk their savings into his product, Minds i, an atrocious rip-off of Google Glass. “You’re all going to have so much more money … on paper.”

Seconds later, Jake is back in his bachelor pad, snorting cocaine and making out with a woman, when he’s interrupted by a phone call: The supply chain broke down in China. The news is already on TechCrunch. The party’s over. As investors start screaming about their emptied retirement accounts and devastated college funds, Jake just rolls his eyes.

The capitalist carnivore is a familiar, if unfortunate, Hollywood trope. Like Larry the Liquidator or Lex Luthor, he’s typically a villain. At his best, he’s an admirably inhuman, semi-autistic genius like The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg. More often, he’s the enviable antihero, as in Wall Street, Boiler Room, and The Wolf of Wall Street, which are all essentially gangster flicks. Like James Cagney’s 1949 classic, White Heat, they ask audiences to gawk at a wild man during his rise to power (“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”), until he’s gunned down in a blaze of glory. We like to see Leonardo DiCaprio’s douche bag Jordan Belfort party on his yacht and Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko outsmart the feds, but we don’t want them to get away with it—even if their real-life analogs often do.

Over and over, Kroll’s invited viewers to laugh at the selfish pricks he portrays.

Over and over, Kroll’s invited viewers to laugh at the selfish pricks he portrays.

Source: The Weinstein Company

Adult Beginners takes a more unusual path. Based on a story by Kroll, the film begins where many similar ones end. Jake suffers his fall, but then the man of much money and little taste is offered some sympathy.

First, he takes the train from Manhattan to the suburbs and asks his pregnant sister (Rose Byrne) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale) to let him crash. They have a different idea: free rent and $300 a week to baby-sit their 3-year-old son. Jake accepts.

Kroll has mastered the art of playing crass egomaniacs such as attorney Ruxin on The League and a variety of cads in sketches on the Kroll Show. His self-satisfied smirk is famous enough that Parks and Recreation created a character for him called, simply, “the Douche.” Over and over, he’s invited viewers to laugh at the selfish pricks he portrays. But he’s never asked fans to like them. Mostly, that’s why Adult Beginners works—because Kroll is unexpectedly endearing.

It also helps that this isn’t a financial revenge comedy, like Trading Places or Horrible Bosses, in which the fallen white-collar guy plots against the executives who screwed him. Jake instead becomes a genuine part of his sister’s family. He swaps snorting lines with bimbos for attending—and enjoying—kids swim class.

Just when Kroll’s character seems to have earnestly embraced family time, he takes a junior-level gig as a trader, and it seems as if he might fall back into old habits. His boss (Josh Charles) is the same kind of jerk he used to be, a swaggering, golfing, homophobic bro. Jake thrives until he tells the guy he has to leave work for a family emergency. “This isn’t Jerry Maguire, dude. I won’t fire you,” the boss replies. “You put up numbers. But you have a choice to make: Either you’re the guy who sits back in that chair right now, or you’re the guy who leaves work for his family.”

Tapping into real-life workplace fear, the manager tells Jake he won’t be a top earner if he ducks out early. He’ll find himself stuck “in the middle”—a phrase Charles delivers with a tone of utter disgust. When Jake says he’s going to go anyway, it becomes obvious that he has less in common with Charlie Sheen, hustling in Wall Street with a vein popping in his forehead, than with Anne Hathaway, settling for a more sustainable path in The Devil Wears Prada.

In the movies, female heroines make tough choices like this all the time. But ambitious guys almost never sacrifice professional success. Either they’re destroyed at the end, or they get everything they ever wanted: the money, the career, the girl. Jake realizes, like so many Hollywood women before him, that he can’t have it all, but that maybe he can keep a job that doesn’t ruin his life.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.