Movie Review: “Landline,” with Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, John Turturro, Edie Falco, Jay Duplass, and Finn Wittrock
A little bit of ‘90s nostalgia is never a bad thing, but a narrative has to have more—more than just a general vibe of “Hey, remember high-waisted jeans and payphones?”—to resonate effectively as a film. That is the problem with Landline, the latest from director Gillian Robespierre, working again with Jenny Slate after their previous dark comedy Obvious Child. Slate is charmingly awkward, the rest of the cast is stellar (particularly Edie Falco and John Turturro), and the script is often sharply poignant. But Landline never really clicks together, relying so often on ‘90s-themed backward-gazing that its family drama fails to set itself apart.
Landline is set in Manhattan in 1995, beginning after Labor Day, when summer is beginning to change into autumn and the idyllic, lazy days of vacation transition back into methodical drudgery. The Jacobs family may be returning together from a family vacation at Lake Louisa, but they all seem to be going in different directions.
Father Alan (Turturro, of Transformers: The Last Knight), a copy writer unfulfilled by his job at McCann Erickson, is intently working on the plays he writes for pleasure. Mother Pat (Falco), a high-powered executive, is tired of carrying all the responsibility for raising their teenage daughter, Ali (Abby Quinn) who is sneaking out at night, going to clubs, doing drugs, and having sex with her boyfriend. And other daughter Dana (Slate, of Despicable Me 3), always the uptight, by-the-rules one, is chafing in her engagement to nice, boring guy Ben (Jay Duplass, of Paper Towns), especially when she runs into old college hookup Nate (Finn Wittrock, of La La Land).
Every Jacobs is trying to figure out who they are individually and how they fit into their family dynamic, but things turn upside-down when Ali finds a floppy disc of poetry that Alan has written to a mysterious “C.” The poems are erotic—“nipples dance ... like raindrops,” one line reads—and Ali, equally aghast and disgusted, leans harder into her bad choices after finding out. She does heroin, she sleeps with her boyfriend, and she runs away, ending up back at the Lake Louisa house one night when Dana is unexpectedly there, too.
“You are such an irritant!” Dana yells at Ali; “You are like the embodiment of constipation!” Ali screams back; and although the two can barely stand each other, it’s Dana who Ali turns to with the news of Alan’s affair. And so together, the pair try to figure out what to do: Tell their mother? Follow around their father and try to discover the identity of “C”? Or learn how to be sisters even as their identities change, with Ali struggling with responsibility while Dana becomes increasingly reckless?
So much of Landline’s family drama feels typical, and that expectedness is unfortunately an obstacle for the film’s wonderfully inappropriate script. Dana, Ali, and Pat are all whip-smart and hilariously vulgar (the film opens with a scene where Ali says to Dana during a car ride, “I can see your boyfriend’s cum stain,” to which Pat gently corrects her, “You can see her fiancé’s cum stain”), and Landline does an effective job depicting the relationship of these three women—Dana with all of Pat’s innate sense of anxiety and worry; Ali with her deadpan humor and button-pushing. But Alan’s storyline is the most obvious, and while Falco and Turturro have a believably lived-in chemistry, their narrative arc is familiar to the point of dull.
The same goes for Dana’s storyline, which parallels her father’s in certain ways—but Landline never takes the next step of having the characters confront each other on their poor choices. Is the film suggesting that infidelity is common enough to be rote, or that Dana is mirroring her father without even knowing it? And if so, what does that mean about her narrative development, or his? Landline raises those questions without answering them, instead choosing to focus on subplots in which Dana pierces her eyebrow ring as an act of mini-rebellion and talks so dirty that she freaks Ben out. Those character details give Slate opportunities to work her raunchy-cute dynamic, but they sidestep narrative issues present in Landline.
Still, at 93 minutes, Landline doesn’t stretch its story too thin or attempt to do too much. The story it tells is undoubtedly jazzed up by ‘90s nostalgia (references to Blockbuster Video, record stores, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s power suits, Must See TV, and PASTE magazine abound), but the performances are good enough to make Landline a worthwhile detour back in time. “She cut off an entire penis, you should say her name right,” Dana advises Ali as they have a stream-of-consciousness conversation about Lorena Bobbitt, their father’s affair, and what will happen to their family. It’s that dark humor that buoys Landline above its otherwise overly recognizable narrative.