Landline is set in 1995, and takes ample opportunities to remind the audience of that fact. Characters wear 90s clothes, they rollerblade, they make calls on pay phones, they go to raves, they shop for CDs. (Remember when that was a thing people did?) Sometimes, the 90s nostalgia provides surprising historical resonance, as when first lady Hillary Clinton appears on television delivering her “Women’s rights are human rights” speech in that power-pink suit. Sometimes it’s funny, as when Jenny Slate launches into a bit about Helen Hunt’s weird pants in NBC’s Mad About You. But it’s unclear what purpose is served by this nostalgia, or by setting this dysfunctional family dramedy in the mid-90s in the first place. So it is with the rest of the film, as well: full of elements that are charming and compelling in themselves, but fail to connect to the larger whole in any meaningful way.
The story is a hodgepodge, centering around a New York family. Dana (Jenny Slate) is engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass), and beginning to get cold feet. Her younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn) is an angry teenager, acting out in school and experimenting with drugs. Their parents Alan (John Turturro) and Pat (Edie Falco) coexist in a dull marriage. When Ali discovers erotic poems on Alan’s computer, she suspects he’s cheating on Pat, and enlists Dana to help her find out the truth. Dana, meanwhile, is cheating on Ben with an old college friend she runs into at a party.
Director and co-writer Gillian Robespierre previously teamed up with Slate for Obvious Child, the abortion-themed romcom that was one of 2014’s best films. The two make a good pair. Robespierre knows how to use Slate in a way that maximizes her unique comic gifts and brings out her goofy charm without minimizing the deeper humanity of her characters. Slate’s use of facial expressions in particular is almost Chaplinesque, and in her hands Dana is a fascinating study, a character both uptight and irrepressible. Falco, Turturro, and Duplass are all great, as usual, and newcomer Quinn almost steals the show as Ali, the sullen teen whose outlook on life is marred by the dysfunctional relationships she sees all around her.
The strength of the cast makes it so you almost don’t notice that the film just isn’t landing until about halfway through. Landline is a movie about communication that never fully connects. There are wonderful elements here—from the delicate portrayal of Alan and Pat’s loving but strained marriage to the way news of Alan’s possible affair allows Dana and Ali to rekindle a sisterly friendship. But ultimately, none of it gels, the various storylines all feel a little undercooked, and the disparate story strands ultimately don’t come together in any surprising or compelling way. Instead, you’re reminded as you watch of other films that did the dysfunctional-New-York-family genre much better.
Robespierre and Slate are good collaborators, as they proved in Obvious Child. If they choose to continue working together, they have many more essential films ahead of them. This just isn’t one of them.