Nicole Holofcener makes every film count.
The writer-director does not work often — “The Land of Steady Habits” is her sixth film in more than 20 years of features — but because she is such an astute observer of the way we live now, everything she does has impact. Her new film is no different. But then again, it is.
Blessed with a fine eye for the foibles of modern life, Holofcener has often focused on women in films like “Friends With Money,” “Please Give” and “Lovely & Amazing,” but here the protagonist is a man, strongly played by the protean Ben Mendelsohn.
Though Holofcener's films invariably make us laugh in rueful recognition of the inane complexities of lives that manage to echo our own, "Steady Habits" also conveys a melancholy darkness, a more somber cast than usual. Everything seems amusing until suddenly it is not.
Adapted by Holofcener from a debut novel by Ted Thompson, a young writer who's been compared to masters like Updike and Cheever, the steady habits land of its title encompasses the Connecticut citadels of comfortable wealth. These are self-consciously quaint places like Westport, where streets have names like Fisherman's Lane and everyone knows everyone else's business.
In theory, or at least in his own mind, Anders Hill (Mendelsohn) is an avatar of exemplary moral behavior in a tarnished world. A former Wall Street trader increasingly disillusioned at "a system of monstrous greed," Anders decided he couldn't respect himself if he didn't walk away from his comfortable life.
So, in a series of actions that took place six months before "Steady Habits" begins, Anders intentionally upended everything. He retired from his job, abruptly divorced his wife Helene (the estimable Edie Falco) and moved out of his house, without, however, informing Helene that he was no longer making monthly mortgage payments.
That action, or lack of it, is one of the ways we can see that the reality of Anders is nothing like his image of himself. An individual of minimal personal integrity, more oblivious than self-aware, Anders is an example of self-centered masculinity, a smug toxic male who can run away from but not avoid the consequences of his actions.
More than this, it is gradually dawning on this difficult, acerbic man, that selfishly acting out his midlife crisis may have been a big mistake.
Ruinous choices seem to be second nature to Anders, and his facility for continually making them is played off against his concern that the way back from this morass of his own devising will come at quite a cost if it is even possible at all.
Casting Mendelsohn, the Australian actor who broke through with a memorably scary performance in 2010's "Animal Kingdom" (the basis for the current TNT series) was a risky idea that paid off nicely.
Mendelsohn, who’s played villains in “Rogue One” and “Ready Player One” and takes on the Sheriff of Nottingham in the forthcoming "Robin Hood," is one of the most naturally menacing of actors, but too much of that quality would make us indifferent to Anders' plight.
Working with carefully chosen costars (Jeanne McCarthy and Rori Berman did the casting) and under Holofcener's expert direction, Mendelson gives a finely modulated performance as a man who belatedly discovers the cost of removing yourself from the interconnected web of family and friends that make up your life.
A key aspect of "Steady Habits" is how fraught being a parent is, how difficult it can be to know “if your kids are broken” and what the best way to react is if they are, a situation Anders faces in two different incarnations.
The first is his own son Preston (Thomas Mann), a 27-year-old Northwestern graduate still living at home, a situation which makes Anders groan “What was the point?"
And then there is Charlie (Charlie Tahan, expert in a difficult role), the teenage substance-abusing son of Anders and Helene's best friends.
Edgy, gifted, unusual (he's working on a graphic novel about Laika, the doomed dog the Soviets sent into space in 1957), Charlie unaccountably looks on the much older man as a kindred spirit, a situation that the responsibility-shunning Anders does not handle well at all.
Unsurprisingly for a Holofcener film, the women are exactly conceived and acted, starting with Falco as Anders' sane and stable wife as well as Elizabeth Marvel as her best friend and a luminous Connie Britton as a woman Anders' meets under highly unusual circumstances.
"The Land of Steady Habits" is set over a Christmas season, a time when family is paramount and even the least of us yearn to connect even though that may feel beyond us. Laying it all out with a piercing authenticity, Holofcener makes us hope that the wait till her next feature is not quite so long.
“The Land of Steady Habits”
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.