Director: Gillian Robespierre
Cast: Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, John Turturro, Edie Falco, Jay Duplass, Finn Wittrock
MPAA Rating: (for sexual content, language and drug use)
Running Time: 1:33
Release Date: 7/21/17 (limited); 7/28/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 27, 2017
There is not a sympathetic character in Landline, a comic drama about the various dysfunctions of a dysfunctional family. In theory, that's fine. We don't have to like characters to find something worthwhile in or about them. Elisabeth Holm and director Gillian Robespierre's screenplay, though, seems to believe that the very existence of these characters' problems is enough for the characters to be both likeable and worthwhile.
It's not the problems that show us who characters are, though. It's how they react to them. Everyone here reacts with a level of immaturity that makes each and every one of them off-putting. At least one of the characters has an excuse: She's a teenager. Being 17, she's fast approaching adulthood (at least in the legal sense), but it's easy enough to cut her some slack, especially when she's surrounded by the rest of these people.
Her name is Ali (Abby Quinn), and she's your typical rebellious teen: drinking, smoking, sneaking out at night to go to clubs, and spending time with a boyfriend about whom her parents are mostly unaware. The parents are Alan (John Turturro), a struggling writer whose day job might as well be his career, and Pat (Edie Falco), who spends most of her time watching over her younger daughter's comings and goings like a hawk. Ali's older sister Dana (Jenny Slate) is out on her own, working in New York City and living with her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass).
The story begins as Ali's, shifts to Dana, and doesn't really return to the younger sister in any significant way. This is unfortunate, not because Ali is a particularly unique character, but because Dana turns out to be an annoying that borders on insufferable.
She has a list of issues. She's unhappy with her job, which she more or less quits by playing hooky. She isn't too happy with her relationship with Ben, who comes across as a caricature of the most humorless, passionless, and boring partner one could imagine. There's a scene in which Dana, coming home late, is met with the sight of him reading a shopping catalog in bed, before she's confronted with the sound of him listing various products that he finds interesting.
His flatness and her dissatisfaction lead to her having an affair. The other guy is Nate (Finn Wittrock), a college friend whom she catches up with at a party. He's charming and handsome in a way that screams that, at least, he isn't Ben. The affair, though, isn't enough, and Dana soon finds herself moving out of her apartment and back into her parents' place, where she spends the day moping and complaining that her life isn't what she imagined it would be. It's a pretty dull result, which is to be expected from a fairly dull series of complaints.
For the most part, this is the uninspired and unenlightening heart of the story, which also includes Ali's discovery that her father is likely having an affair, too, as well as Ali's various adventures in navigating sex, alcohol, and drugs—all while trying to avoid her mother's snooping and criticism. Alan's possible affair (gleaned by Ali when she discovers some erotic poetry to a mystery woman on the family computer) leads to some amusing amateur detective work on the part of the sisters. The strongest material here involves the two, a generation apart, as they bond with no particular goal in mind (drinking in the family's summer home, swimming in a hotel pool and annoying the guests, and going on a Halloween-night visit to a drug den). We get the sense that they're more alike than they think, despite their age difference. This bodes well for Ali. It does not say anything too kind about Dana.
There's little structure here. It wouldn't be noticeable, except for the fact that Holm and Robespierre don't provide any through line for these characters. The screenplay loses track of Ali as soon as Dana's affair becomes the focus, and it loses track of that story once the question of how to deal with Alan's affair takes over. Lost among all of this is Pat, who's played by Falco with some unexpected vulnerability in her scenes as Ali's overprotective mother, as well as with just the right notes of regret and defiance when her long-held suspicions of her husband seem to be confirmed. Eventually, the movie starts to become a look at how these three generations of women are connected by this experience, but it comes so late that just registers before the movie comes to an end.
In general, the performances are fine. Quinn plays Ali as a teenage girl who is simultaneously beyond her years in attitude but naïve about the ways of the world. Slate goes for laughs, which is the right choice for a character this unappealing. Turturro finds a good combination of helpless dreamer and hopeless schlub.
The 1990s setting doesn't hurt, although it seems an entirely nostalgic decision (with a few jokes about the technology of the time). The upper middle-class perspective of Landline doesn't help, since all of these problems just come across as the inconveniences of some spoiled people. In the movie and in their own lives, they're the problem.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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