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The core talents who helped to make 2014’s unwanted pregnancy comedy Obvious Child such a delight — writer-director Gillian Robespierre, writer-producer Elisabeth Holm and lead actor-executive producer Jenny Slate— reteam here for Landline, a more ambitious effort with a crack supporting cast. Unfortunately, Landline somehow manages to fall disappointingly flat all too often. Set in mid-1990s Manhattan, when no one had cellphones, bricks-and-mortar record stores were places to hang out and suspenders for women were briefly a fashion thing, Robespierre and Holm’s script (based on a story they co-wrote with Tom Bean) observes how infidelity, secrets and lies affect one affluent Jewish-Italian nuclear family and those in their orbit.
With an ensemble that includes the suddenly ubiquitous Slate, impressive relative newcomer Abby Quinn (from The Journey Is the Destination), Edie Falco, John Turturro and Jay Duplass, this is sure to find its niche commercially, especially with viewers from the same metropolitan sophisticate milieu as the film depicts. However, Landline isn’t likely to receive many summoning calls from awards bodies, unlike its older, much-lauded sister film, Obvious Child. Somewhat divisive at Sundance where it premiered, it speaks eloquently to some about desire and family bonds, but many others will feel repelled by the abrasive, self-absorbed lead characters and/or the pic’s strained, grating air of whimsy.
For lo and behold, this is one of those films that abounds in scenes where people dance a lot, with each other or alone, interspersed with other sequences where they sing along uninhibitedly to cheesy pop songs of the period. Since the story takes place in 1995, happily many of the tunes are ones that haven’t been as overexposed recently on the surprisingly narrow collective playlist of American cinema. Whatever else Landline’s faults might be, credit is due to Robespierre, music supervisor Linda Cohen and whoever else was responsible for collating the eclectic soundtrack that encompasses Steve Winwood’s “Bring Me a Higher Love,” vintage African dance music, 10,000 Maniacs and hip-hop tracks of the era. But too often it feels as if the filmmakers were told that one of the highlights of Obvious Child was the montage where Slate and Jake Lacy rock out to the intoxicating title track by Paul Simon, so they decided to pull the same trick as many times as possible here.
Although Slate, now both a well-known face and voice (thanks to a shed-load of voicework for various animated works, including The Secret Life of Pets and Zootopia), probably has more screen time here than anyone else, Landline is largely a group effort. At the center of the story is a typically dysfunctional family comprised of father Alan (Turturro), a creative at advertising firm McCann Erickson who longs to become a playwright; mother Pat (Falco), a tough-minded, high-powered businesswoman; and their two daughters Dana (Slate) and Ali (Quinn). Flighty twentysomething Dana, a graphic designer for Paper magazine, recently got engaged to schlubby but sweet Ben (Duplass), while surly Ali is in her final year of high school and sexually involved with a classmate (Dylan Prince), although they refuse to see themselves as a couple.
While the two sisters bicker frequently, they grow closer when Ali finds a floppy disk on the family Mac II home computer full of erotic poems written by Alan and dedicated to a seemingly not-so-coy mistress known only as “C.” After Ali confides her discovery to Dana, they agree not to tell Pat but to start stalking their father to work out the mystery woman’s identity. Meanwhile, Dana herself has a serious wobble in her commitment to monogamy when she reconnects with Nate (Finn Wittrock from The Big Short and lots of New York theater), a smooth-talking stud muffin from her college days. Soon, the two are screwing anywhere they can, including at a matinee screening of a documentary about Nazis, a dazzling defiance of good taste that goes beyond Seinfeld’s debate over making out while watching Schindler’s List.
At its best, Landline is a savvy, saucy evocation of the manners and mores of a certain specific strain of the East Coast haute bourgeoisie at a very specific time. The script nails the more relaxed — some might say just lax — parenting of a generation that used to take their infants clubbing with them at Studio 54.The period fixtures and fittings acquired and deployed by production designer Kelly McGehee and costumer designer Elisabeth Vastola are likewise consistently spot-on, noticeable without being flashy, every time just the right kind of stonewashed, baggy denim or home stereo cassette player and the like.
Unfortunately, it’s as if something were off in the calibration that slowly leaks out the comic atmosphere from too many scenes. The fault appears to lie less with the cast themselves, who are by and large pretty good (Falco is especially compelling playing against type, and she has great chemistry with Turturro, though Slate is actually actively annoying here). The problem is they all seem to be acting in different movies. Moreover, the farcical elements in the plot take far too long to gel, and Robespierre and company push too hard at mixing sad, silly and sweet; for instance, a climactic scene between Dana and Ben that takes place on a Village street on Halloween night with the leads dressed as a California raisin and her box. It all makes being cute look like such hard work.
Production companies: An OddLot Entertainment presentation in association with Route One Entertainment/Union Investment Partners of a Wear It In Good Health production
Cast: Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, Finn Wittrock, John Turturro, Dylan Prince
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Screenwriters: Elisabeth Holm, Gillian Robespierre, based on a story by Holm, Robespierre and Tom Bean
Producers: Elisabeth Holm, Gigi Pritzker, Russell Levine
Executive producers: Rachel Shane, Natalya Petrosova, Lee Jea Woo, Chris Lytton, Charlotte Ubben, Jenny Slate, Gillian Robespierre
Co-producers: Susan Leber, Stacy Keppler, Sophia Dilley
Director of photography: Chris Teague
Production designer: Kelly McGehee
Costume designer: Elisabeth Vastola
Editor: Casey Brooks
Music supervisor: Linda Cohen
Casting: Douglas Aibel, Stephanie Holbrook
Not rated, 96 minutes
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