Landline (United States, 2017)

July 20, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Landline Poster

Wedding family drama with rose-colored 1990s nostalgia, Landline provides an ensemble of solid performances and some affecting moments but is ultimately undone by a storyline that treads too-common ground for American indie (and French) films. The movie underwhelms because the narrative, which tells the tale of the intra-family struggles of a middle-class New York family, offers a series of oh-so-predictable situations and does nothing original with them. Far too many small budget/arthouse films get stuck on this playground and, intentional or not, they cannibalize one another. Director/co-writer Gillian Robespierre is nowhere near as self-indulgent as Noah Baumbach but she’s aiming for the same audience.

Dad’s having an affair. He and Mom are barely speaking and, when they do, they’re not on the same wavelength.  Sister #1, the older one, is bored with her fiancé. Sex in the woods doesn’t work (she doesn’t like bugs and gets poison ivy) so she has an affair. Sister #2, the younger one, is in her rebellious stage, so she tries drugs, tries sex, and stays out all night. When the kids find out that Dad is (probably) having an affair with the mysterious “C”, they’re not sure how to react. Confront him? Tell Mom? Use the information to blackmail the already emasculated guy?

John Turturro and Edie Falco are wonderful as the older married couple. Their performances give the characters a “lived-in” feel, offering the unforced chemistry of two people who once loved each other but have lost the passion (and perhaps even the affection) and are going through the motions. The actors are more interesting than their alter-egos, Alan and Pat. The same can be said of Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn, older sister Dana and younger sister Ali, respectively. Slate’s use of sarcasm and humor to cover insecurity, boredom, and pain is on-target. Her range may be questionable (she plays pretty much the same character in every movie) but she’s excellent in this role. The lower-profile Quinn, with a thin resume, seems to be channeling Moira Kelly.

In case you don’t remember 1995, the year in which Landline transpires, Robespierre overemphasizes the technology and pop culture of the day. On a car trip, everyone joins in on a sing-along of “Higher Love” (which won its Grammy in 1987 so everyone singing it eight years later feels anachronistic). There are no cell phones. The clunky computer isn’t connected to the Internet (and Alan doesn’t understand the concept of password protection). Every minute or so, there’s some in-your-face reference to remind us that it’s 1995 not 2017. It’s understandable that Robespierre has a soft spot for the year (she was about the same age as Ali at the time) but more subtle call-outs might have been less distracting.

The script has a bittersweet tone with comedy occasionally lacing dialogue that is primarily dramatic in nature. The sister/sister relationship between Dana and Ali is honest with Slate and Quinn’s interaction making it easy to believe they share the love/hate push/pull of many same-sex siblings. Turturro and Falco aren’t given nearly enough to do and, when they’re on-screen, they’re stuck playing stereotypes. The scene in which Alan offers a defense for his actions is laughably absurd. It’s the same one used by Denzel Washington in Fences but without the sense of power and despair. Dana’s flirtation with ex-college buddy Nate (Finn Wittrock) is stale, but no more so than the film’s account of her relationship with Ben (Jay Duplass). This material is so hackneyed that it needs more than what Robespierre and Slate provide to invigorate it.

Landline has a lot in common with Robespierre’s 2014 feature debut, Obvious Child. Slate headlines both. They are New York-based and, as such, sometimes feel a touch of Woody Allen inspiration. The tone and style are similar. Neither boasts great originality but Obvious Child is less…well…obvious. Landline is short enough (90 minutes) not to overstay its welcome but, when it was over, I found myself wishing that Robespierre had uncovered something more interesting for her characters to do than act out plotlines from other movies I had already seen.

Landline (United States, 2017)

Director: Gillian Robespierre
Cast: Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, John Turturro, Edie Falco, Jay Duplass, Finn Wittrock
Home Release Date: 2017-10-17
Screenplay: Elisabeth Holm & Gillian Robespierre
Cinematography: Chris Teague
Music: Chris Bordeaux, Jordan Cohen, Clyde Lawrence
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2017-07-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1