Gillian Robespierre knocked it out of the park with her first feature Obvious Child. She managed to deliver a satisfying, funny romantic comedy, giving it an honest, moving spin with a frank and complicated look at abortion. Landline re-teams Robespierre with her Obvious Child star Jenny Slate in a film that does not near their first film together in quality, but that does not mean it is charmless or without laughs. They’re there, but with an ambitious amount of characters to deal with, they ultimately get swallowed up by its frustrating fits and starts.
Landline takes place in Manhattan in the 1990s (more on this later). Slate plays Dana, a twenty-something engaged to nice guy Ben (Jay Duplass). At a party, she reconnects with a college flame (Finn Wittrock) and starts sleeping with him. Meanwhile, her teenage sister Ali (Abby Quinn) is still living at home with their parents (Edie Falco and John Turturro), wanting to be out on her own and live her life without her mother breathing down her neck. One day on the computer, Ali discovers her father has been cheating on her mom for a quite awhile, in a tidy parallel with Dana.
Choosing to set your film in a different time period other than current day must serve a purpose. Can this story only be told at this time, or are you simply nostalgic for a certain time and want to include nods to antiquated pop culture and technology as a knowing wink to the audience? Landline firmly falls in that second category. Nothing about the plot of the film and how the characters behave reflects and specifically 1990s way of life. It’s in the ’90s because the audience gets to have a recognition chuckle when Dana uses a payphone or Ali uses a floppy disk. Not only do they not serve a purpose (they easily could’ve been a cell phone and a computer folder), but as humor, this is one of the cheapest ways to get a laugh.
That is even more disappointing when so many laughs in the film are genuine and smart, not to mention character building. Putting Slate and Quinn in a room together constantly proves to be an exciting dynamic generating humor and empathy. Their styles perfectly sync up so well. There is a section in the film where the two end up together alone at their family’s vacation home, and part of me wished that would be the whole film. Not only is it funny, but it gives them to really talk with one another about the things they can’t talk to anyone else about.
The less interesting stuff is dealing with their father’s affair. Figuring out who the mistress is never compelled me. Also, the dynamic of the overbearing mother and subservient father has been done to death. Turturro and Falco make the most of it, but they never really transcend their types. This was probably most disappointing coming off of Obvious Child, which dealt a great deal in subverting archetypes. As good as Slate and Quinn are, even they still feel too much like types: the floundering twenty-something and the rebellious teen. With all of the movie tropes at work here, some honesty and three-dimensionality really would have helped.
Landline is not a bad film by any means. If you want a couple of laughs and an interesting sister relationship, it’s a fairly decent time. But this is definitely a step down from Obvious Child. The things that elevated that film from good to great are sadly missing in Landline, leaving it as merely good. I’m still on the Robespierre bandwagon, though, and do not see myself getting off anytime soon.
Categories: Film Festival Reviews