Gillian Robespierre’s new film Landline is a harbinger of an inevitable trend, one as mundane for some viewers as it might be terrifying for others. Landline has all the trappings of a period piece—attention is paid to specific costuming, none of the characters have cellphones, and everyone’s sexual politics feel a little out of date. But Landline is not set in the swinging ’60s, not even in the shoulder-padded ’80s—it’s a melancholy comedy set in 1995, with some of the visual hallmarks and specific Manhattan geography of a Nora Ephron film. That’s right: The ’90s are ancient history now.
But while Robespierre’s film, her follow-up to the wonderfully sharp 2014 abortion comedy Obvious Child, feels reminiscent of many a classic ’90s Manhattan love story, it doesn’t echo the clean rom-com storytelling of the genre. She digs into her ensemble’s flaws far more eagerly than their strengths, and endeavors to create a more well-rounded portrait of love, relationships, and infidelity in which there are no clear winners or losers. Landline, as such, feels like a bit of a chore to watch at times—don’t expect an emotional reunion on top of the Empire State Building—but that’s the idea. The film doesn’t want to wrap things up cleanly, and it takes the ’90s as the epicenter of a shift in family values, one where the idea of coupling up is more frightening than it is reassuring.
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.
But Robespierre doesn’t do quite enough to earn their reconciliation either, as the film swerves from its dramatic second act to a more wistful conclusion. In the end, Landline succumbs to a trope it spends much of its running time eagerly trying to avoid—it ties things up with a bow, and promises a bright future for everybody. If I wanted to remember some idealized version of the ’90s, there are plenty of old movies I can watch. Landline doesn’t seem to want to join their ranks, but its ending is too tidy, too pat, to avoid that fate.