'The Land of Steady Habits': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Uneven, but lifted by a masterful lead performance in a winningly minor key.

Ben Mendelsohn, Edie Falco and Elizabeth Marvel star in Nicole Holofcener's first feature in five years, a comic drama spun around the disconnect between suburban parents and their kids.

Call it shorthand or cliche, symbol or target — suburbia is an enduring draw for storytellers, especially if they want to delve into American varieties of conformity, materialism, stale marriages and disaffected children. Nicole Holofcener enters this well-worn territory with The Land of Steady Habits, her sixth feature in 22 years, and one that shifts her focus from angsty urban striving to hushed Connecticut affluence. This is the first time she's directed an adaptation (working from Ted Thompson's debut novel of the same name), and the story is a good fit for the writer-director, whose brief filmography runs deep with wisdom and wit on the aches, rages and frequent ridiculousness of modern adulthood.

This peek behind the manicured lawns of Westport doesn't have the bracing sting of Please Give or Friends With Money, and its plot unfolds in a way that's often more mechanical than organic, but the familiar suburban terrain is enriched by Holofcener's knack for turning offhand moments into piercing ones and, especially, by a magnificently off-center Ben Mendelsohn. (The movie is Holofcener's first without Catherine Keener.) As a man who has traded in marriage and career to satisfy a vague longing for something more, he delivers a beautifully unpredictable portrait of someone flailing to right himself, infuriating friends, family and strangers along his stumbling way.

Mendelsohn's character, Anders Harris, has taken an early retirement (all the characters are slightly younger than in the novel). Citing the moral compromises and spiritual emptiness of his lucrative career in finance, he professes to want to do something meaningful, but in practice he's as aimless and floundering as his 27-year-old son, Preston (Thomas Mann). Six months after the divorce that was entirely Anders' idea, and designed to liberate him from everything that's false, he's still puttering around the same tony town and keeping tabs on his ex, Helene — played by Edie Falco, with typical earthy fire, in an under-conceived role. "You're supposed to be happy now," Helene tells him accusingly.

But happy wouldn't be the word for Anders' state of mind. He's all lost in the supermarket — or, more specifically, in the local shops where he drifts through the aisles seeking stuff to fill his condo, occasionally picking up women for afternoon trysts that are closer to disaster than delight. Those midday hookups are as pathetic as the manufactured doodads Anders considers buying for their faux-rustic charm or assumed utility. Looking at one such doodad, he boyishly asks a female fellow shopper, "Do you know what this is?" The film's most purely cinematic moment is the opening image, framing Anders against towering walls of towels in a big-box store. It's a color-block vision of privilege and longing, filtered through the prism of choice overload.

That opening section is drawn from Holofcener's imagination, not the source material, and it bears her signature in its insightful conflation of consumerism and personal identity. In order to zero in on Anders' experience, her screenplay reduces the number of narrative threads and POVs in the novel. But in what feels like a concession to movie convention, she adds a romantic interest for the antihero. Barbara is played exceptionally well by Connie Britton, and although this subplot lends the movie an unsatisfyingly soft, if open-ended, final note, there's a superbly unsentimental maturity and hopefulness in the scenes between Mendelsohn and Britton — whose characters' meet-cute takes place in the grotty bathroom at a strip club.

Anders' story is built around the looming debacle of the holidays. What else could Christmas bring but debacle, what else for an earnestly — and often tactlessly — searching soul, one who's surrounded by the kind of lockstep mentality that binds the ultra-moneyed to one another. Though the downsized life was Anders' adamant choice, he's somehow feeling wronged by where that decision leaves him. More to the point, he feels dispensable, especially when he discovers that Helene has a boyfriend, Donny (Bill Camp), who has already moved into the sprawling house whose mortgage payments Anders magnanimously agreed to keep paying, even though he can no longer afford to do so.

One friend (Josh Pais) shares Anders' disdain for the money-obsessed lives they once led, although he clearly stepped away from his with a huger fortune than Anders'. The only other person Anders clicks with, purely by accident, is Charlie (an excellent Charlie Tahan), the teenage son of Helene's best friend, Sophie Ashford (Elizabeth Marvel). An artist and an angry, troubled kid, Charlie understands the essential conflict between Anders and people like his parents: "You can't be you and stay in favor." Charlie's work-in-progress graphic novel is an achingly sad story about Laika, the street mutt who was sacrificed to the scientific cause of the Soviet space program back in 1957. It's profoundly revealing that Anders instantly gets it, and the film sparks to life in the scenes between Mendelsohn and Tahan.

Their characters' unlikely bond is as real as Anders' relationship with his own son is strained. It's also occasionally fueled by illicit substances, with repercussions that only deepen the scorn of Charlie's parents, Sophie and her cigar-wielding blowhard of a husband (Michael Gaston), toward Anders. As Sophie, Marvel (exquisite in last year's Meyerowitz Stories) has a politely murderous stare and is a fascinating mix of flinty, brittle, bruised and self-medicated. One of the most harrowingly understated aspects of the movie is the adults' tough-love style of parenting, as if they're trying to make up for years of indulgence.

Holofcener's cool observational tone — somewhat heavily underlined by the ironic lilt of the near-constant score — mostly serves the story well, but as the drama builds toward its emotional climax, the intended gut punches don't quite register. If the center holds, it's thanks to the enthralling performance by Mendelsohn, one of the most compelling character actors of any era. With his syncopated verbal rhythms and unguarded gestures, he brings a very specific example of middle-aged adolescence to vivid life, at once irresistibly irreverent and troubling.

The film has an unfussy, no-nonsense look, one that won't suffer on the small screen (it's getting a theatrical run on the coasts day-and-date with its streaming premiere). But there are elegant, poetic surprises amid DP Alar Kivilo's straightforward, functional imagery and the effortlessly character-defining interiors and clothing by designers Dina Goldman and Alex Bovaird. There's the opening image of Anders shopping — quandary personified — and, much later, when perplexity threatens to turn into a nosedive, there's the unexpected sight of dry-docked pleasure boats wrapped for winter in plastic, like maritime ghosts. That image, like the movie at its most trenchant, puts the shadowy edges of the social contract front and center: It's the brutal and comically awkward juxtaposition of celebration and grief.

Production company: Likely Story
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Edie Falco, Thomas Mann, Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel, Connie Britton, Charlie Tahan, Michael Gaston, Josh Pais, Victor Slezak, Peter Brensinger
Director-screenwriter: Nicole Holofcener
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Stefanie Azpiazu, Nicole Holofcener
Executive producer: Jennifer Roth
Director of photography: Alar Kivilo
Production designer: Dina Goldman
Costume designer: Alex Bovaird
Editor: Robert Frazen
Composer: Marcelo Zarvos
Casting directors: Jeanne McCarthy, Rori Bergman
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)

98 minutes