‘Landline’ Review: A Trip Back to the ’90s With Jenny Slate
Ah, the 1990s. That glorious decade of eyebrow rings, prepaid calling cards, and Blockbuster Video. Landline makes you nostalgic for that great time, when you could go to the movies without fear of a jerk in front of you checking their phone the entire time, like the jerk two rows in front of me during Landline. That lady really knew how to put the divide between then and now into stark relief.
Director Gillian Robespierre’s follow-up to Obvious Child finds her working in similar tonal territory with a slightly larger cast, telling the story of a New York family during a particularly turbulent period in their lives. The main characters are two sisters, Dana (Obvious Child’s Jenny Slate) and Ali (Abby Quinn). Although separated in age by about a decade, both young women share similarly uncertain futures. Dana is engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass) but she’s come down with a major case of cold feet. Ali, who’s on the verge of high school graduation, appears to have no interest in her future. After her parents, Alan (John Turturro) and Pat (Edie Falco), go to bed, she sneaks out to clubs and dabbles in hard drugs.
Alan and Pat’s fate isn’t quite settled either. When they’re not arguing about or with Ali, they don’t have much of anything to say to one another. Returning home from one of her late night debauchery fests, Ali boots up the family computer and discovers a secret cache of poetry that Alan has apparently written to a mysterious lover he calls “C.” Ali takes it upon herself to prove her dad’s infidelity and find the identity of his mistress, and eventually ropes Dana into the quest, even as she begins contemplating an affair of her own with a handsome ex-boyfriend named Nate (Finn Wittrock).
With Landline, Robespierre expands the scope and emotional range of her feature debut, sometimes with mixed results. The film is almost as messy as its characters’ love lives, and the early scenes, which take a long time establishing the various subplots, play less like a dramedy than a comedy that could have used more jokes. But the movie gets more earnest and impassioned (not to mention better) as it goes along, thanks in large part to outstanding performances across the board.
Given her work with Robespierre on Obvious Child, Slate’s quirky performance is no surprise, but the full ensemble gets plenty of time to shine. Turturro and Falco are incredible in a series of scenes where their relationship woes come to a head in unexpected ways, and Quinn, who’s only appeared in a few roles before Landline, is a revelation as Ali. Ferocious and funny, she’s one of this year’s big discoveries at Sundance. If her work here is any indication, this is the start of a very exciting career.
Setting Landline in the 1990s ultimately doesn’t amount to much; Dana’s job at Paper Magazine never factors into the larger plot, and apart from the role the lack of cellphones plays in Ali’s journey, this movie could have easily been set today with almost no significant changes to the story. The winking musical references and questionable fashion choices are good for a couple laughs, but they — and actually a lot of the broader humor in the movie — feel a little bit like a crutch that Robespierre is leaning on to make an otherwise serious movie more palatable to an audience that wants to see her direct another Obvious Child. Thankfully, the characters find a kind of clarity by the end of Landline — and the movie does too.