Film Review: “Landline” — A Compelling Comedy-With-Drama

Landline is a textured, often funny and subtly acted portrait of a family experiencing rumblings set off by sexual affairs.

Landline directed by Gillian Robespierre. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema and AMC Loews Boston Common.

Abby Quinn, Edie Falco and Jenny Slate in a scene from "Landline." Photo: Chris Teague.

Abby Quinn, Edie Falco, and Jenny Slate in a scene from “Landline.” Photo: Chris Teague.

By Betsy Sherman

Obvious Child was a special movie, not only because it spoke the A-word out loud (the lead character, pregnant after a one-time fling with a man she barely knows, has an abortion). The gutsy comedy made that action one facet in the story of a young woman pursuing her bliss (stand-up comedy), negotiating the dating world, and finding support from friends and family. And it gave a starring role to Jenny Slate (of Milton, Mass.), one of the funniest actresses around (Kroll Show!).

The follow-up by director-writer Robespierre and producer-writer Elisabeth Holm, in which Slate co-stars, is Landline. This ensemble comedy-with-drama isn’t ground-breaking, but that’s fine—it’s a textured, often funny and subtly acted portrait of a family experiencing rumblings set off by sexual affairs. The Jewish-Italian Jacobs family is a quartet of nimble, witty, and too-wisecracking-for-their-own-good Manhattanites.

Two homes experience these rumblings: the apartment of the Jacobs family—Pat (Edie Falco), Alan (John Turturro), and 17-year-old Alexandra, called Ali (Abby Quinn)—and that of older daughter Dana (Slate) and her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass). A third location is the family’s summer house on a lake. It’s here where the movie opens, on Labor Day 1995. As the family gets ready to head home to the city, we watch Dana and Ben’s last-minute first try at having sex in the woods comically fail.

Yes, the title Landline refers to phones with cords, and nods at the term’s implications: being tethered, but also being able to escape connection by just walking away. There are nostalgic sprinkles in the dialogue—Chernobyl, Lorena Bobbitt, Mad About You—and oh, those ‘90s jeans.

The central character is Ali (a strong performance by newcomer Quinn), who’s the same age Robespierre was in ’95. With Pat trying to manage Ali’s college-application process, it’s evident that the sullen teen’s reaction is to recede into a world where her parents won’t have much sway (her sister, with whom she isn’t close, has zero sway). She’s sexually active with maybe-boyfriend/ maybe-friend Jed (Marquis Rodriguez), and she sneaks out late at night to go clubbing with a heroin-snorting friend. On Ali’s bedroom wall—like angel and devil on each shoulder—are Rolling Stone covers of Winona Ryder and Courtney Love’s band Hole. Ali is listing towards Courtney-land.

Then she sees a document on a family floppy disk. Her father, a failed playwright who settled for a copywriter job, has written erotic poems for a woman called “C.” Ali feels panic, and a newfound awareness of her family. She notices how potent her mother’s put-downs are (Falco is great at lacing the dialogue with acid, and the goateed Turturro at showing how it burns).

When both Ali and Dana flee their homes for refuge in the shuttered family lake house on the same night, they quit bickering and, for the first time, confide in each other (on the way to rapprochement, the younger sister snipes, “Are you gonna, like, try and braid my hair later?”). Ali tells Dana their father is probably seeing another woman. Dana has a secret as well: she’s been cheating on Ben with Nate (Finn Wittrock), an old college crush.

We’ve seen the genesis of this affair, born of Dana’s jitteriness about the wedding, softie Ben’s over-agreeability (on the Labor Day car ride he volunteers to take the middle seat in the back), and Nate’s carefree hunkitude. Dana wants to be transported, and the secret sex gets her there, but she feels miserable—and elated.

Falco and Turturro bring depth to the roles of the parents, who don’t get as much screen time as the sisters. Their relationship in particular carries Landline‘s observations about the state of masculinity and femininity in the ‘90s (that decade of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, a book that promised that mutual understanding would result in closeness).

Alan (like his junior counterpart, Ben) seems to have resigned himself to getting out of the way of the brassier females in his life in the interest of harmony—except the time has come when he obviously needs more than that but won’t be honest about it. Pat is never less than a loving mother, but as a wife she’s continually exasperated, and her tongue can sting.

Hovering over the film is America’s first couple, Bill and Hillary Clinton. Pat, who has an unspecified government position, is gung-ho for Hillary. There’s a crowdpleaser moment when she’s seen leading a meeting wearing the same pink suit we’ve just seen Hillary wearing on TV (a portrait of President Bill hangs on the office wall). Hillary found a way to rise above her husband’s infidelity, preserve the marriage, and pursue her ambitions. Will Pat?

Falco gets a wonderful scene to herself, where we see her away from the family, learn some back-story and catch some vulnerability on her part. The subsequent scene at home plays out to another piquant TV cameo: a vintage clip of Lenny Bruce, pining for his ex-wife in song.

It’s kind of a mad dash towards Landline’s ending, in which antics during New York’s Halloween parade take a dark turn. The shock of revelation subsides, and the offending parties deal with the suffering they’ve caused. Things aren’t tied up with a bow at the end, which is nice, but it does feel a bit vague. However, a standout scene finds the Jacobs women sitting on the bathroom floor, listening to and appreciating each other in a way they couldn’t before.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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