One of the strongest truths in telling any story is that if you can’t make your lead characters likeable, at least make them interesting. Michael Corleone? Not likeable, but highly intriguing. Walter White? Really unlikeable, but dear God, so complex and endlessly fascinating. Darth Vader? One of my favorite movie characters of all time, but I certainly don’t like him in the least. In Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline,” the follow-up to her 2014 debut “Obvious Child,” there is nary an amiable character amongst the leads of the films, which makes for a difficult movie to watch or to recommend.
The year is 1995. Life, as we knew it then, barely consisted of home computers and interconnected webs. If people wanted to converse, by gosh, they mostly had to do so in person or these home devices called a “telephone,” which in today’s vernacular we now mostly call a “landline.” In New York City, two sisters, Dana (Jenny Slate, “Obvious Child”) and Ali (newcomer Abby Quinn), are finally starting to bond after years of finding their age separation not allowing them to connect to one another (Dana is a good eight to ten years older than Ali) when they discover their father Alan (John Turturro) may be cheating on their mother Pat (Edie Falco). Not that Dana is some kind of patron saint of holiness, as she is cheating on her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass) with her college beau Nate (Finn Wittrock), while teenaged Ali herself is exploring who she is going to become by experimenting with drugs and alcohol and impassionate sexual liaisons with a friend from school. The entire family is just kind of going through the motions at this point. Pat is struggling to keep her family together while having a successful career at the EPA. Alan is a failed playwright turned successful ad-man who looks outside his family for inspiration for his writing. Dana can’t allow herself to be happy with the good-natured Ben because she’s wondering if there’s some other person she’s supposed to be with. And Ali doesn’t know who she is or wants to be, just that (shock!) she doesn’t want to be like her parents.
Like its anachronistic title (nobody called home phones a “landline” in the mid 1990s), “Landline” seems to be stuck between an unspoken semi-autobiographical story where the auteur doesn’t want to give away all the goods and a nostalgia piece for a period most people aren’t all that nostalgic about, at least not yet. If one were to put a picture of Ms. Quinn up against one of Ms. Robespierre, one might notice an uncanny resemblance. And if one were to do the math, one might notice that Ms. Robespierre was in 1995 the same age as Ali is when this story takes place, and grew up in the same Manhattan scene depicted here. Which may explain why the co-writer and director never quite goes for the jugular (or any other major artery) condemning any of her lead characters’ actions, or why she treats the one truly decent character of her piece (non-family member Ben) with such uncertainty. Ben is safe and boring, and completely out of place with a bunch of narcissistic poseurs who are looking to escape their anodyne and contented lives.
Sometimes, we viewers will go see a movie because we enjoy the work of a certain filmmaker, or certain actors who are featured. When he’s not puzzlingly starring in Transformers and Adam Sandler movies, John Turturro has been featured in some of the most iconic films of the past thirty years, from his first major role as Carl Cody in William Friedkin’s near-masterpiece “To Live and Die in L.A.” through his numerous collaborations with Spike Lee and The Coen Brothers, while Edie Falco has been one of the best actresses working since she burst on the scene in Nick Gomez’s “Laws of Gravity” in 1992. Putting these two dynamic and enigmatic actors together in a movie should have created some real magic on screen, but there is sadly nearly zero chemistry between them. Jenny Slate, who seemingly excels at playing the most annoying characters possible, is the least grating she’s ever been here, yet she’s also the most tedious she’s ever been here. Finn Wittrock plays the same blink and you’ll miss it half-note pretty boy he played in “La La Land.” Of any note in the film are Jay Duplass, who is really starting to come out of the shadow of more pervasive brother Mark, and Abby Quinn, who has some real charisma and really could become an actor to look out for in a better project.
And let’s face facts: no one really has a longing melancholy for the days of Blockbuster Video stores and eyebrow rings and Lorena Bobbett roller blades and slam poetry right now. That nostalgia might come in another eight to ten years, and maybe “Landline” will become a cult movie by then. But right now, it’s just not worth it.
Landline opens at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, the Lincoln Square Cinemas and the Union Square Cinemas in New York City, and the Landmark 12 in West Los Angeles on July 21st, before expanding in to other cities throughout July and August. Check our Early Report every week to follow its expansion.Rating: D+