Robespierre’s trump card is Jenny Slate—the comedian and actress who made Obvious Child such a joy to watch, and who should be acknowledged as a full-blown star based on her performance here as Dana Jacobs, the eldest child of the Jacobs clan. Her mother, the somewhat severe Pat (Edie Falco), is a hyper-critical bad cop, with her listless-seeming husband Alan (John Turturro) largely parenting from the sidelines. Dana’s younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn) is a high schooler flirting with typical forms of rebellion—drug use, staying out late, and pre-marital sex—while Dana is fretting over her relationship to her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass), which is stuck in a serious rut as they plan for their wedding.
Plenty of rather stereotypical interpersonal drama over various couplings and uncouplings plays out over the next 90 minutes. Dana flirts with a former flame, the jocky Nate (Finn Wittrock), while Ali goes into an emotional tailspin as she guesses that her dopey dad might be having an affair. There’s lots of yelling, an interlude at the family’s country home, and some difficult conversations, all of it mixed in with the acidic humor that pervaded Obvious Child a little more thoroughly.
But Slate helps keep any scene she’s in afloat, never letting Dana seem like a ’90s career-girl cliché, nor leaning on her own more uninhibited personality. Obvious Child saw Slate playing a stand-up comedian, so I wondered if her convincing work there was helped along by the character’s more autobiographical nature. But in Landline, she’s just as fully realized: Though she retains Slate’s incredible honking laugh, she otherwise lacks her self-possessed spirit. Her flirtation with Nate as her wedding approaches might seem like a tired plot contrivance if it weren’t for Slate’s quiet grasp of Dana’s anxieties about commitment.
The rest of the cast, despite their efforts, don’t fare quite as well as Slate. Ali’s rebellion feels non-threatening, while Pat and Alan, struggling with their frayed connection, operate mostly as satellites in Dana’s larger crisis of matrimony. Though the ’90s setting is pivotal to the themes Robespierre (who co-wrote with Elisabeth Holm) is trying to explore—namely, the subdued and oft-necessary disintegration of some of these traditional family values—in practice, the throwback clothes and soundtrack often feel gimmicky, less a part of the film’s environment and more just tacky window dressing.
Pat’s characterization was the toughest of all to swallow. While Robespierre is obviously aiming to depict this family’s flaws and foibles, warts and all, she’s a little too one-dimensionally crotchety to ever sympathize with. Falco and Turturro are talented enough to suggest the faintest hint of some lost chemistry between them, but there’s not much of it in the writing. The only relationship in Landline that really feels salvageable is Dana’s, with Ben—Duplass is well-cast as the sweet, ineffectual guy, the type who usually gets left behind in the Nora Ephron movie.