Landline: Tell Me Why I Love You Like I Do, by Josh Long
In 2014, writer/director Gillian Robespierre hit the scene with her feature debut, Obvious Child. This year we’re treated to her follow-up, Landline, also starring comedienne Jenny Slate. While the former film deals with one woman’s personal development, the latter explores family dynamics and the kind of dysfunction that can lie beneath the surface of a seemingly “normal” family. Set in the 1990s, a decade familiar to the teen years of both Robespierre and Slate, the new film examines the challenges of a middle-class family changing in unexpected ways.
Landline’s protagonists are the Jacobs, a family of four living in New York City in 1995. Parents Alan and Pat (John Turturro and Edie Falco) are white collar grunts, Alan nursing his ambition as a playwright/poet on the side and Pat struggling to maintain a job and stay the primary housekeeper. Dana (Slate), the elder sister, lives with her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass) in a comfortable, if boring, day to day life. Younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn) sneaks out at night to raves and is barely able to hide her drug habit from her parents.
The drama comes to a head when Ali discovers erotic poems that her father has written for a mystery woman. Simultaneously, Dana embarks on a fling with an old college friend (Finn Wittrock). When Ali reveals their father’s affair to Dana, it brings up some big questions for her – can she excuse her father’s affair, finding herself in a similar position? Can she compartmentalize the two infidelities, and share in her sister’s ire? When both events throw the family into an emotional minefield, it changes their dynamic forever, and challenges their sense of a family’s responsibility.
The highlight of the film is the ensemble performance. Each of the five lead actors is doing excellent work, and they play off of each other comfortably and believably. There aren’t many overt conversations about Alan and Pat’s marriage, but we get so much understanding of it by small reactions and interactions. We sense the strain before we know anything’s wrong. The script also resists the temptation to simply villainize Alan. This is the easy way out for so many films that involve extramarital affairs. If anything, we may be more on Alan’s side to begin with, because Pat is openly hostile to him at times. This deepens the drama as more is revealed, adding a complication to already dramatic moments.
Slate and Quinn also share great onscreen chemistry. They start as argumentative siblings, but over the course of the film grow into being adult sisters. They come to think of each other in a more personal way, and learn to live with (and even appreciate) their differences. Slate is given a particularly nuanced arc, starting off very straight-laced and finicky, then thrown into a crisis of identity when she decides to indulge her wilder side. She has a great relationship with Ben, but is it enough? There’s a little of an uncomfortable fact meets fiction element here as well. Without going too tabloid, Slate appeared last year to be romantically involved with Chris Evans while still married to then-husband Dean Fleischer-Camp. While it may all be speculation, it was a widely discussed topic among the TMZ crowd. If there’s any truth to the rumors, that adds another layer of depth running beneath her performance.
I will have to take some issue with the setting. There’s nothing wrong with creating a drama like this as a period piece, but there is a sense that the filmmakers think the time period is more essential to the film than it really is. The fact that the title itself points to 90’s technology is just one thing that suggests this – there’s also scenes of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton on TV, mentions of Mad About You and an ancient-looking computer that becomes a key plot device. It’s all well and good, but none of the period piece trappings seem at all important to the story. It could easily be adapted to modern-day New York with some minor costume and makeup changes (really minor, since 90’s fashion has come back with a vengeance). Again, no reason that something like this can’t be a period piece, but the film draws enough attention to it for us to wonder why.
While Landline treads some familiar filmic territory, it does so with great performances and a heartfelt attitude. As a character piece, it’s personal and thought-provoking. Most of this cast are seasoned professionals but there’s a commonality to the vulnerability of their performances which undoubtedly comes from a director that knows how to work with her actors. While it may lack the emotional gut-punch of something like The Squid and the Whale, it’s still an engaging exploration of infidelity in the middle class American family.