Film Review: ‘Landline’ Charms Even When Clunky

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Is marriage as hard for an older couple as it is for a newly engaged one? Writer/director Gillian Robespierre takes a look at these relationships in her new family comedy “Landline.” The plot of the film centers around a pair of affairs. However, the real heart of the story is in the fractured family dynamic, particularly the bond between sisters. It’s a charming, if uneven, second feature for Robespierre.

Ali (Abby Quinn) and Dana (Jenny Slate) are sisters each in a precarious transition state of their lives. Ali ignores her college applications in lieu of going out to nightclubs around New York City. Dana stresses about her engagement to clean cut Ben (Jay Duplass), which leads her into an affair with an old fling, Nate (Finn Wittrock). The two disparate sisters come together when Ali finds a folder with love poetry from her Dad (John Turturro) to another woman. They strategize how they can catch him in the act and if they should tell their hard-headed Mom (Edie Falco).

“Obvious Child” was a breakthrough film that announced writer/director Gillian Robespierre as a great talent. She recollaborates with the star of that film, Jenny Slate, who gives a terrific performance here. In fact, the performances all around are great. Slate expertly paints the specifics of her character’s apprehension about marriage without making her fears seem trite. Edie Falco is a talent we should see more of. After delivering some of the greatest TV performances of all time, it is exciting to see her grace the silver screen with a tough, tricky character. John Turturro also steers clear of any easy cliches or pitfalls as the Father caught in an affair. Lastly, in the lead role of Ali, Abby Quinn marks herself as a new young talent with an exciting future ahead of her.

What holds the film back is its inelegant plotting. The characters are all very richly defined and the conflict between them never feels histrionic. However, there is little dramatic propulsion. In addition, the film jumps around to different storylines in very inelegant ways. The first half is particularly rough, as it keeps the sisters apart. Once we explore their unique relationship, the film offers us up something fresh and unique. Still, the central affair storyline pops up when convenient and disappears when unwanted. The main problem is the script’s lack of focus. It sees many things going on, but is content to jump around to what it’s interested in at that moment, rather than structuring things in a cohesive manner. Despite being relatively short, the poor plotting makes the film seem much longer. It’s a shame a few more drafts weren’t given to this promising idea.

Amongst all the plotting confusion, the setting takes hold and becomes the welcome lead of the film. Set in New York circa mid-90s, the film feels like a mid level Woody Allen film of the past. Little details and references help set the scene. The titular landline helps effectively transport us into a different time. It’s refreshing to see a small film act as a curio for a time that isn’t so far away. It helps mark a new wave of nostalgia for the ‘90s that pop culture will continue to pick up on.

With so many distribution options out there, the independent film scene seems to be bursting with new projects. While this aids launching new filmmakers, it also further crystallizes familiar indie tropes that now have become cliche. “Landline” doesn’t do much to reinvent the mold or these cliches. However, with a strong voice like Gillian Robespierre, these familiar elements jump forth as fresh due to her stellar character work. In “Obvious Child” the whole framework and story coalesced around her vision. Here, it seems she had a strong grasp on the characters while the story got away from her and frayed about. It will be great to see her tackle more projects in the future.

“Landline” is currently playing in limited release.

Grade: (★★★)

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