With this year’s selection, the Berlinale seems to be creating space in the festival calendar, between Sundance and SXSW, for a particular type of American indie: the melancholy, slight, intensely personal and hence rather divisive kind, in which vaguely famous actors—usually the comedic kind—play downbeat iterations of their more familiar selves. It may not be a coincidence that Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg debuted here rather than home turf in 2010, but Dustin Guy Defa’s The Adults, which premiered in the festival’s Encounters strand, makes Baumbach’s problem child seem positively commercial by comparison. Fortunately for all involved, Universal have already picked it up; this is definitely not the type of movie to thrive in today’s marketplace.
It begins in a hotel room, where Eric (Michael Cera) is making plans to see an old friend after three years away. Eric’s attempts to breeze back into town and pick up where he left off fall embarrassingly short, but he does connect with an old poker buddy who puts him in touch with some local players. It says something about Eric that he does this before visiting his sisters, Rachel (Hannah Gross) and Maggie (Sophia Lillis), who are excited to see him but clearly realistic about the amount of time he plans to stay there. Sure enough, Eric is only there for a flying visit, until the poker circle widens and he hears about a high-stakes game that appeals to the card-sharp that lies beneath his easygoing exterior.
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The title of the film is somewhat ironic since the real adults of the story—the siblings’ parents—are long gone and there are clearly issues that not been dealt with (the fact that Rachel lives in their mother’s old house is obviously triggering to Eric). In the absence of any parental figure, the three struggle to connect with each other, mostly by reverting to childhood, reiterating old jokes and songs that fill in the spaces that otherwise might be taken up by proper conversation. But even that doesn’t fill the void any more (“You used to think I was the funniest person in the world,” Eric laments).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Defa’s film does not exactly race to the finish line, struggling to fill 88 minutes with the delicate to-and-fro of whether or not they will ever, finally, communicate. Before long, weapons-grade levels of whimsy start to intrude, and the film’s intriguing, charged atmosphere is suddenly obliterated by a scene in which the three dredge up strange imaginary characters they created as kids: Hannah is “Wug-wug”, Rachel is “Mopey-mopey” and Eric is “Charles”, an English gent from the Dick Van Dyke school of elocution. They will do this again later, at a party, but this time more seriously, arguing in shrill baby voices that may well drive out those who don’t leave after the interpretative dance sequence—to “Overkill”, an ’80s US hit for Australia’s Men at Work—that follows. For reference, only the talking cat Paw-Paw in Miranda July’s The Future has ever previously scaled such heights of arthouse annoyance.
Defa’s last film, Person to Person (2017), suffered from a similar lack of substance but it did achieve what it set out to do, which was to present a characterful portrait of New York in a picaresque hipster style reminiscent of the city’s No Wave heyday. It also proved that Defa has a good eye for casting; even though Cera plays the character that takes us into the story, he is quickly upstaged by Gross and Lillis. A more pressing criticism, though, is that The Adults is a comedy-drama that doesn’t seem to deliver much of either, and that gray, in-between state just isn’t appealing anymore. Could it be that the cinema of awkwardness, or mumblecore in different clothes, has finally reached its sell-by date?
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