When writer-director Gillian Robespierre and former Saturday Night Live cast-member Jenny Slate worked together on 2014’s Obvious Child, the result felt almost revelatory.
The film was a funny but unflinchingly honest approach to a familiar story — a woman dealing with an unplanned pregnancy — that felt new and thought-provoking. Slate was equally impressive, proving she could craft a complete human being just as well as a goofy character in a skit.
Now comes their second collaboration: Landline, a comedy about two sisters (Slate and newcomer Abby Quinn) who discover that their father (John Turturro) is cheating on their mother (Edie Falco). While the result takes the same realistic and unconventional approach to committed relationships, it also lacks the same focus and depth.
Let’s start with Slate.
Her character, Dana, is almost the complete opposite of her Obvious Child character. Where Donna was almost self-destructively uninhibited, Dana is in desperate need of letting loose. So, unsure about her impending marriage to her goofy boyfriend, Ben (Jay Duplass, who we interviewed about the film), she has an affair with the cool, sexy guy she had a fling with in college, played by the obscenely appealing Finn Whitrock. As with Obvious Child, Slate manages to make the character understandable if not necessarily forgivable. Yes, Dana is an uptight mess who doesn’t know what she wants, but she’s also a lovable goofball who dares to try figure it out. It’s a layered, endlessly watchable performance that, unfortunately, only makes it easier to notice how incomplete the other performances are.
While Duplass and Whitrock are just fine as male archetypes at different ends of the spectrum, Falco and Turturro’s characters are a little more complex. While the latter benefits from the way the film draws parallels between his character and Slate’s, Falco’s task is more difficult. She spends much of the film being just a domineering wife and mother, and while a late reveal gives some justification for her hostility, she feels like an untapped source of story potential.
In an early scene, we see her alternate between nagging Turturro’s character, Alan, and watching Hillary Clinton give her famous, “women’s rights are human rights,” speech. In the following scene, we see her at work, dressed in a cheap replica of the same dress Clinton wore. There’s something intriguing there about women and the way they’re perceived, but the film does nothing with it—and it’s not the only example.
Perhaps the film’s biggest missed opportunity is the other main character, Ali (Abby Quinn). For a relatively new actress, Quinn is surprisingly confident. Her character is foul-mouthed, determined and unapologetically herself. She’s not a typical movie teenager, but the character is so extreme in her uniqueness that it’s kind of impossible to buy her as an actual teenager. Few women that age are so self-actualized and while there’s a suggestion late in the film that her performative rebellion is similar to her mother’s sharp-edged resentment, she’s so relentlessly outrageous that any meaningful nuance is lost.
Unfortunately, that lack of finesse seeps into just about every aspect of the film. The story takes place in New York City in 1995 and the film never lets you forget it. There’s such a cascade of pop culture references, bad clothes and pop songs from the period that it honestly ends up feeling forced. The film’s ‘90s milieu is a deliberate collection of the most distinct bits of culture from the period rather than casual–or even meaningful–scene setting.
Really, the only callback that feels unaffected is the way the characters communicate in a pre-cellular world. Presumably, that’s even why the film is called Landline. Still, what makes those moments stand out is their novelty, not their substance. Yes, landline phones are often Slate and Duplass’ only means of communication, but what that now-antiquated form of communication says about relationships goes largely unexamined. All it does is emphasize how different life was in the ‘90s. And while the observation is jarring, just making it doesn’t give it meaning.
Landline Rating: 6/10