The title Landline may seem superfluous at first, but that's kind of the brilliance of Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate's next collaboration after Obvious Child. The film is set in 1995, a time before everybody had cell phones, the internet was still this exotic thing, and if you really wanted to communicate with somebody you had to really make an effort to do so. And that is what Robespierre's satisfying and nostalgic comedy is all about; making an effort to be with the people you love, even if something much more exciting is waiting in the wings.
The film follows one Manhattanite family who all have their share of problems, but the central focus is on Dana (Slate), an unappreciated graphic designer at a small magazine; and her teenage sister Ali (the extraordinary Abby Quinn), a young wannabe rebel acting out against...well, pretty much everything. Dana's grown bored of her fiancee Ben (Jay Duplass) and, disilusioned over their future together, embarks on a fling with her handsome and yes, far more exciting, college ex (Finn Wittrock). Dana's a worrier; she frets over the sex she and her husband had in the forest (she gets poison ivy), forgetting that, hey, it was sex in the forest which is kinda awesome. Everything leads to something else awful, and it all means she should probably rethink this whole marriage thing.
Dana's supposed to be the responsible one, and maybe compared to everybody else in the family she is. Ali's running through all of the rebellious teen checkpoints: drugs, sex, cursing, running away. Despite her cold demeanor, and thorny comments aimed at everyone in the family, she does rely on them. Especially there's a sweet bond with Dana, that seems stronger because they are such opposites. However, it does make things a little complicated when Dana reveals her infidelity to her sister.
The reason is that Ali had recently discovered their father's infidelity, revealed in some really crappy erotic poetry he left on the computer. John Turturro and Edie Falco play their parents, who have been together so long that things have gone stale, although it's tough to tell if there was ever any spark. He's a boring copy writer who still holds on to dreams of being a playwright, while she's a businesswoman who models herself after Hillary Clinton, especially the wardrobe. Remember when Hillary was a fashion icon?
In some ways, Landline can be seen as a more conservative response to Obvious Child, but I think it's that Robespierre views the '90s as a much simpler time than now. While all of her characters make terrible choices in an attempt to figure themselves out, the arc always bends towards doing the right thing. None of these people are awful despite their decisions and the guilt they heap on one another. Done the wrong way and everyone could come off as phoney, but Robespierre is a filmmaker who knows how to strike the right balance. She's especially in tune with Slate, who tones down her more crass tendencies to play a character who is a total square. The real find is Quinn as the one member of the family we expect to mess up, but her blunt honesty turns her into the voice of reason everyone needs to hear, even if they'll just say she learned it from Oprah.
Landline isn't laugh outloud funny, and the plotting is a bit woolly at times (a drug bust scene is about as cliche as it gets), but Robespierre has done something that has become increasingly rare lately, and that's make a family comedy with characters that actually seem like a family.
Rating: 3 out of 5