When spotlighting the dysfunctional familial factors in a period piece film set against the background of retro-urban rambunctiousness, it is a creative challenge to balance the ingredients involved: Underlying marital strife, sibling rivalry, adultery, emotional stagnation and fragile relations. In co-writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s nostalgic mid-nineties comedy, Landline, we are whisked back to a “vintage” time where romanticism and family-based anxieties were not reinforced by technological tools such as smartphones, social media outlets and text messaging. Instead, Robespierre revisits an era when things were simplified in comparison and clunky computers were all the rage.
Interestingly, Landline is familiar territory for Robespierre and her creative collaborator, Jenny Slate (“This Means War”), as both skillfully fleshed out the dynamics of flawed femininity and the crossed lines of aimless womanhood in 2014’s “Obvious Child.” As with that, Robespierre again seems to graciously rip the imaginative pages out of the movie-making books of such noted artists as Woody Allen and Edward Burns where romantic and family-related entanglements are heightened by the atmospheric surroundings of working-class disillusionment. The result, Landline is a wickedly cheeky film that, while mostly conventional, still resonates with a charming spirit that is inviting and infectious in its offbeat pulse.
It is Manhattan in 1995 and we are introduced to the Jacobs . . . a flustered family beleaguered by a malaise of psychological, mental and emotional obstacles. They consist of parents Alan and Pat (John Turturro, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and Edie Falco, “Megan Leavey”) and daughters in thirty-something Dana (Slate) and high schooler Ali (Abby Quinn, “The Journey Is the Destination”). This family foursome is immersed in their on-going issues individually, among each other and of course with others as intimate partners. To say that the Jacobs are a troubled collective unit is a colossal understatement.
Father Alan (feigning professional satisfaction) is trapped in a humdrum job as an ad copy writer despite not being able to explore his true passion for becoming a notable playwright. Mother Pat is a big wheeler-and-dealer in citywide local government (a poor man’s Hillary Clinton to put it bluntly), and views her husband Alan as the ultimate underachiever. Little sister Ali has a rebellious streak in her much to the dismay of controlling Pat, but this will not deter her from becoming close to her classmate Jed (Marquis Rodriguez, “3 Generations”). As for Dana she feels notoriously closed in because her live-in relationship with the good-natured dud Ben (Jay Duplass, “Beatriz at Dinner”) is relentlessly strained and she finds the need to create some distance. Thus Dana ends up returning to her parents’ home for some time-out clarity where, sadly, she comes to the realization that her existence is dull and empty especially when compared to that of her baby sister Ali who has a more lively social life.
The revelations begin to emerge when both Dana and her father decide to take a walk on the wild side and find affectionate comfort in the arms of other lovers. The justification for their straying might seem somewhat warranted, however, given the indifference that their current intimate partners demonstrate (Pat browbeats Alan, and Ben is an absolute bore). For Dana she strikes up an affair with handsome college associate Nate (Finn Wittrock, “La La Land”). As for Alan’s extra marital affair it is uncovered by Ali while going through her father’s computer files. Ali dutifully reports Alan’s cheating to Dana and the sisters strangely bond as they try to find out the identity of the mystery woman.
Overall, Landline is a decent depiction of a fruitless family at the crossroads. This narrative does not break any new or distinctive grounds when showcasing the ruination of relationships, however, both Robespierre and Slate do once again deliver the comical confusion at the root of feminine angst and self-doubt. Specifically, Slate’s Dana Jacobs is the new breed in cinema where seriously broken women are oddly empowering and engaging despite the torment and turmoil brewing just underneath their skin.
Of course, there isn’t an undamaged person in the lot.
Aside from Slate’s Dana being a walking wrecking ball, Falco’s Pat is an emasculating toxic figure and Quinn’s Ali is a junior-sized Dana-in-the-making but with better grounding. The men do not garner a great look either. Both Turturro’s Alan and Duplass’ Ben are seemingly pushover nerds while Wittrock’s Nate is nothing more than a hot boytoy used for a distracting plaything. Clearly the players of both sexes in Landline are unapologetic in their flawed frivolities and it is this that makes this raunchy comedy — under the turbulent glow of the Clinton Administration — work so effectively.