Gillian Robespierre made a successful directorial debut with 2014’s Obvious Child, which mixed rom-com elements with the decidedly unfunny subject of abortion. Her new comedy, Landline, tackles the relationship between two sisters and how it is affected by their father’s infidelity. For reasons best known to Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm, the story takes place in 1995.
Twenty-something Dana (Jenny Slate) appears to have her life in place-a job as a layout artist with Paper magazine and a loyal if stodgy fiancé named Ben (Jay Duplass). Her younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn) is a defiant high school senior prone to reckless behavior. Although the two appear to be polar opposites, they share a trait: neither filters the cutting remarks in her mind.
Ali poses a particular challenge for their parents, Alan (John Turturro) and Pat (Edie Falco). Typically, Pat is the disciplinarian. It is hard to say whether Alan plays the good cop or simply avoids engaging. He is an aspiring (and very bad) playwright who dislikes his copywriting job. Pat, a businesswoman, has no patience with his resigned attitude and detachment from family matters.
One day Ali finds a floppy disk on the family’s Mac II that contains love poems written by Alan to “C”. She tells Dana, and the sisters agree to locate their father’s mistress rather than telling their mother. The bad news creates a bond between the sisters, but it also causes them to react via self-destructive behavior. Dana begins an affair with Nate (Finn Wittrock); Abby experiments with heroin.
The film’s title can be taken on two levels. It can be a reference to landline phones or the connection within families. Dana and Ali draw security from their parents, far more than they realize. They do not develop a sense of this until they learn of a threat to their parents’ relationship.
Jenny Slate continues to evolve as a performer. She makes the transitions between physical comedy and introspection look natural. The sister chemistry between her and terrific newcomer Abby Quinn is spot-on. John Turturro plays somewhat against type here but gives an effective performance as Alan. Falco shows Pat’s strength as well as her vulnerability.
Landline’s script is full of references to 1995- the aforementioned Mac II, Mad About You, Blockbuster, roller blades, non-power windows, calling from a phone booth to get voice mail messages, and its soundtrack, among others. You have the impression that the mention or appearance of these things is supposed to be hilarious. Those who did not come of age during the period-and especially those not from New York- will probably find this aspect of the film mildly amusing at best.
The elements in Landline’s story- infidelity by a parent, improved relationship between two sisters, strengthening of family bonds- are compelling, and I like this film overall. I would have liked it more, however, if the filmmakers had demonstrated a cinematic (as opposed to personal) reason for setting the film in 1995. Those Helen Hunt jokes only go so far.
Theme: Marital Discord Affects Siblings
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