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Review: Jenny Slate stars in tired ‘90s-set family dysfunction comedy ‘Landline’

Jenny Slate, left, and Abby Quinn in the film "Landline."
(Landline Productions)

It may be true, as Tolstoy famously put it, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Yet it’s hard to ignore, among a rising number of screen stories that purport to explore family tensions, the been-there-done-that sameness beneath the idiosyncratic surface. Case in point is Gillian Robespierre’s comedy “Landline,” a New York-set group portrait that reduces those tensions to checklist items as it plumbs the shallows of dysfunction.

Set in the ’90s for no particular reason other than the filmmakers’ personal nostalgia, the second feature by “Obvious Child” director Robespierre reteams her with co-writer Elisabeth Holm and actress Jenny Slate, who delivers a performance that mistakes quirky for interesting. She plays Dana, mildly flailing older daughter of the unhappily married Pat and Alan Jacobs (Edie Falco and John Turturro) and sister to rebellious high schooler Ali (Abby Quinn).

The presence of Falco and Turturro is certainly reason for hope, and though the screenplay gives the gifted duo little to dig into, they lend nuanced depth to material that favors shtick over insight. Falco in particular finds unexpected notes in her bad-cop mom, a tough government bureaucrat in a perpetual fury. Turturro has the more clichéd role, a playwright manqué toiling in advertising in quiet desperation. The couple’s frayed connection is fully felt, but so too is the spark that once united these weathered Manhattanites, who, as revealed in one of the few evocative details in Holm and Robespierre’s screenplay, went to a Lenny Bruce show on their first date.

In “Landline,” as in life, whatever the forces uniting a family, each person is also spinning in their own orbit. The problem is that the four members of the Jacobs clan often seem to be in separate movies. Tonal swerves can be a source of useful friction; here they’re simply awkward, and Robespierre’s efforts to meld sentiment and laughs grow increasingly strained.

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That’s especially true in Slate’s turn as Dana, the ensemble’s flimsy linchpin. Panicking as she enters the Wedding Planning Phase with her fiancé (Jay Duplass), Dana starts cheating on him with an old friend from college (Finn Wittrock). Duplass plays the sweet nebbish just right, and Wittrock has the perfect swagger of an incorrigible flirt. But none of that really matters, because the movie uses adultery as a convenient plot point and nothing more. Even with Dana crawling back to her childhood home, there’s no believable emotional messiness, just a bit of a hurdle on the path toward an unconvincing ode to monogamy.

The adultery theme, if not its intended effect, is doubled when Ali discovers evidence that suggests Alan is having an affair. A scene in which the sisters stake out their father’s office building has a bright, charged spontaneity, a nervous undertow and a dynamic sense of midweek Manhattan. It’s precisely the kind of comic-dramatic fusion that’s missing from most of the film — though there are glimmers of persuasive sisterly scrapping and bonding elsewhere, with newcomer Quinn delivering an impressively unruly combination of spirited and sullen. (Marquis Rodriguez brings a deft comic touch to the role of Ali’s sort-of boyfriend.)

If Slate often seems to be playing toward an unheard sitcom laugh track, “Landline” has a suitably flat TV look. Notwithstanding an excellent selection of vintage songs that includes a track by PJ Harvey, the ’90s setting is clumsily evoked. There are self-conscious nods to “Curly Sue,” eyebrow rings, fashion-statement suspenders and floppy discs. Pay phones are used to retrieve messages on the home answering machine. The time-capsule elements might hit the sweet spot for some viewers, but they don’t deepen or even comment on the story’s layers of ennui, infidelity and resentment. What remains is a standard catalog of unhappy-family fare, and one that can be as grating as a busy signal.

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‘Landline’

Rating: R, for sexual content, language and drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles; ArcLight Hollywood

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