A film review by Craig J. Koban September 21, 2023

THE ADULTS jj
 

2023, R, 93 mins.

Michael Cera as Eric  /  Hannah Gross as Rachel  /  Sophia Lillis as Maggie  /  Wavyy Jonez as Dennis  /  Anoop Desai as Josh  /  Kyra Tantao as Megan

Written and directed by Dustin Guy Defa
 

 

 

I can certainly see what Dustin Guy Defa's THE ADULTS was trying to do and say, but what I was left wondering when I finished my screening was whether or not the overall film worked on its intended levels.  

Some of the core ideas at play here are young adults struggling to find ways to be open and honest in their communication with one another within a fragile family unit, so they employ unique outlets to do so.  On some levels, THE ADULTS is a fairly sharp portrait of family dysfunction and how semi-estranged siblings struggle to find ways to simply be around one another.  The film partially spoke to me in the sense that I understood the insecurities and concerns of these lost souls and how they seem rather hopeless at being who they really are in front of one another.  

My main problem, though, with THE ADULTS is not with its cast, the good performances, and its underlining themes.  No, my misgivings reside with its rambling and meandering storytelling, its formulaic beats, and how the characters themselves are sometimes so insufferably strange that I just couldn't form a meaningful connection with them.  For a film that's a scant 90-plus minutes, THE ADULTS felt twice its length at times.

On the positive, it's great to see Michael Cera return to feature film roles after an absence of several years (first with this summer's BARBIE and now this).  He's pitch perfectly cast as Eric, whose past (and arguably present) is not particularly well defined in the story.  All we know early on is that he has been away from his two sisters for three years because (his claim) he has been too busy to return home (busy with what is debatable).  His sisters in Rachel (Hannah Gross) and Maggie (IT's superb Sophia Lillis) are still mourning after the death of their mother, but they are happy to welcome their reclusive brother back home.  When Eric does reacquaint with his sisters, he insists that it'll be an achingly short visit of just a few hours, which angers Rachel (who's still processing her grief), but still pleases the younger Maggie, who welcomes any time - albeit fleeting - with her older brother.  But something just seems horribly off about Eric right from the beginning.  Within minutes of seeing his sisters, he seems to be going out of his way to leave them to pursue other things...like a painfully awkward and impromptu visit to an old friend (who clearly doesn't want to spend any time with him) and his incessant desire to get his foot into the local underground poker scene to feed what we're assuming is a serious gambling addiction.     

Eventually, Eric decides to extend his stay from a few hours to a few days, but the more time he spends drifting in and out of his sisters' lives, the more past pain starts to resurface.  Rachel in particular feels really annoyed by her brother's behavior, which has only fuelled the flame of her resentment of him.  She feels that he was never really there for her when their mother died or when she needed help after inheriting the family home.  It really, really irks her when he decides to stay in a nearby motel versus the family home and despite the ample free space available to him there.  Maybe she has a point.  Eric is so hopelessly detached from his family  (during one night out bowling he even fakes answering a cell phone call coming in to him so he can avoid them).  Maggie is the less beaten-down-by-life member of this clan and seems eager to accept Eric back into it, but this also turns off Rachel because she feels that he'll be a negative influence on her during a crucial turning point in her young life.  Everything unavoidably comes to a head when this fractured family unit has to confront their woes (past and present) in order to healthily move forward.

 

 

Eric is a fairly interesting case study in THE ADULTS and is the film's primary focus of interest.  He seems like someone that's constantly uncomfortably within his skin and definitely goes out of his way to avoid forming meaningful ties with those that should matter most to him.  The manner in which he casually lies and lies often is more than a little disturbing, but when we learn early on that he has an obsessive compulsive desire to gamble his money (and perhaps sorrows) away with poker, we tend to get a fuller picture of what makes him tick.  The real reason that he extends his stay with his sisters is not initially because he cares about them or wishes to spend more time with them, but rather because he spent most of his first night home losing badly at a poker match and now desperately wants to reclaim his money and lost mojo with another.  He seems unhealthily addicted to the rush of winning and overcoming past defeats.  He's also a cunning mind game provocateur at the Texas Hold 'Em tables, especially during one key scene at a fairly high stakes game.  This is not the first time that Cera has played a gambling degenerate (he was shockingly good at playing the same kind of role in the very underrated MOLLY'S GAME), but here he's in his creepy element again.  The actor still looks appealingly youthful looking despite pushing 40, and he's so bloody good at playing these seemingly mild and unassuming, but conniving and chilling sharks that will step over anyone to get what they want. 

When THE ADULTS is not focused on Eric's poker pursuits, it delves into this peculiar family and the equally bizarre dynamic that they share.  There is a constant wave of oddness that exists between Eric and his sisters, especially because of the way they just can't talk simply and plainly about their issues with one another.  Their only real outlet of connection is to revert to childish games of spirited improv, sometimes doing odd character voices and other times doing idiosyncratic song and dance routines.  THE ADULTS is interesting when it hones in on what this family has to do to overcome some obvious communication issues.  It's clear that they were perhaps raised with no fundamental understanding or ability to talk openly with one another.  Instead, they opt to use outlandish accents, shrill personalities, and music as a way to connect.  There's something to be said about how initially amusing, but ultimately pathetic, this all is, mostly because they're all - in their own ways - totally incapable of carrying any meaningful conversations.  These little superficial skits and performance tricks and stage acts do reinforce the bond they obviously had as kids, but it's pretty disheartening to witness them still relying on them to reach out.  They all seem to be going through previously established motions and without precisely saying what really is in their hearts and minds at any given time.  THE ADULTS seems dialed in to how some families have members that care for each other, but don't have any interpersonal skills whatsoever to communicate said love.  Eric, Rachel, and Maggie are in a state of cruel arrested development.

For as initially compelling as these interactions are in the film, they unfortunately become more grating to sit through as the film progresses (oftentimes without purpose) from one scene to the next.  THE ADULTS tests patience and the endurance levels of viewers in showcasing some frankly dislikeable people engaging in outlandishly off-putting behavior, which only becomes less endearing as a mutual support mechanism and instead becomes just, well, irritating.  As far as dramedies go, the odd and hyper shrill voice, song, and dance routines that Eric and his sisters resurrect from a quieter time of their childhood are not inherently funny, not to mention that they stymie any emotional link viewers want to have with them.  The film also doesn't have much of an overarching story either and is - more or less - a series of vignettes and personalities strung together in an effort to frame some sort of consequential whole.  Maybe the whole premise is too formulaic as well to sustain this film (estranged family members must gather back together when one of their own comes home after years of being away and now they all have to face their past problems together).  The cast, again, is good here, especially a never-been-better Cera and a wonderfully effervescent Lillis, but poor Gross is perhaps the one actor of this solid trio that's given the least to work with on the page.  Rachel seems to have one mode throughout the film: deep cynicism and hostility (mostly directed squarely at her brother)....and not much more.  She's a good actress being given an underwritten role.   

Here's one last thing:  I think that the film's tension-filled poker scenes are arguably its best and have the negative side-effect of being more intriguing than any of the shared family scenes that permeate the story.  And Cera is so in the zone playing this socially stunted, but jazzed-up gambling addict that may or may not be on the spectrum.  There's a push-pull tug of war effect going on throughout THE ADULTS.  It has moments of sobering observation about a complex and broken family unit and their unusual eccentricities, but in the end I failed to latch onto or care about any of these beleaguered characters struggling to cope with one another.  The film is more insightful when it deals with Eric's disturbing poker mania and how that typifies how lost he is with his friends and family.  Maybe THE ADULTS should just have been about that.  I dunno.  

It's a really ironic title, don't you think?  In the end, this film isn't as grown up as it thinks it is.

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