By Elias Savada.
Three years ago, filmmaker Gillian Robespierre arrived at the Sundance Film Festival with her first feature, Obvious Child, a small, smart comedy-drama about pregnancy and abortion. It was a charming and perceptive rookie endeavor that made many critics’ Top Ten lists. It also unleashed a new star in the indie heavens named Jenny Slate, who had the same role in Robespierre’s 2009 short of the same title upon which the feature was based. Slate, a standup comedian who shares my birthday (Go Ares!), has now been seen in dozens of films (most recently, Gifted) and tv series, and is heard in such animated films as The Lorax, Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets, The Lego Batman Movie, and Despicable Me 3.
She’s back front and center in Landline. So is Robespierre, with her sophomore effort, as is Elisabeth Holm, as a producer and co-writer, and many of their support staff (composer Chris Bordeaux, editor Casey Brooks, cinematographer Chris Teague). The film is about one slightly nonconformist, upper middle class New York City family’s infidelities. This ensemble sitcom set in 1995 is about the Jacobs, an Italian-Jewish blend of insecure folks who dabble in various adulterous and pre-marital affairs. More a gee-whiz look at the era of bygone technologies and fads, the modest film has an abundance of too-cute moments, particularly as it portrays the old-fashioned days before social media wreaked havoc on social civility. I suspect lightning won’t strike twice as an art house favorite, but Landline does offer up some funny and endearing moments.
Despite a cast of mostly familiar faces (John Turturro, Edie Falco, Jay Duplass), I found myself most enjoying the acting chops of Abby Quinn, a relative newcomer who was lucky enough to get the film’s juiciest role, as Ali, the adventurous, troublesome teenage sister to Dana (Slate), who has her own faithfulness issues with Ben (Duplass), her fiancé. When Ali accidentally loads into the family’s shared computer a floppy disk with dad’s erotic love poems to another woman, she and Dana start doing some investigatin’ in an attempt to right the wronged family member. That would be mom, whose supposed to be unaware to the “other woman,” but she seems have an inkling that something is amiss. Turturro and Falco, as bookish ad man Alan and his overbearing wife Pat, are fine as people who have moved from early life wildness into middle age irregularity, a situation that threatens to shatter the family unit.
I do think that Jenny Slate does pull some fine punches in this promiscuous comedy as she tries to cope with the inevitability of a future marriage to laid back Ben, and sneaks off into her own self-inflicted crisis by stumbling into a fling with her I’m-game-if-you’re-game former college boyfriend Nate (Finn Wittrock). Even with all her coping mechanisms, her role begs for more gravitas.
The drug scenes (Ali tries heroin; the girls get caught up in a drug bust) do convey a sense of sisterhood, but the flippant comic approach balances unevenly with the seriousness of the family’s fall from grace.
As the film meanders from one mini-crisis to the next, I felt that Robespierre was just checking off the script’s shopping list of family problems, while also giving the production designer carte blanche in showcasing coin-operated pay phones, Lorena Bobbett, VHS tapes, dot matrix printers (loud enough to wake the dead), the California Raisins (dancing dried grapes whose commercial popularity actually dated to the latter part of the ’80s), and other 1990s nostalgia.
Ultimately, Landline registers as a push me-pull me emotional drama about four members of a family that are spinning uncomfortable semi-comic, barely-tragic circles around one another. When you try to sprinkle whatever comic (some raunchy) elements the screenwriters offer here, the laughter just seems to evaporate.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).