Movie Review: Landline
By Matthew Huntley
August 15, 2017
What's good about Landline, the second major feature from Gillian Robespierre (the first being Obvious Child, unseen by me) is that it doesn't confine itself to any one category. It's not just a dysfunctional family comedy; it's not just light (and sometimes slapstick); it's not just serious; it's not just coming of age. It's an ambitious medley.
And yet, in its attempt to be so many different types and to weave together so many story and character threads, no individual part of it really excels to the point where we find value in the whole. The movie holds our attention, sure, but it eventually bites off more than it can chew and we're not left with anything terribly original or distinct but merely fair.
The problem, I think, is that Robespierre wants to tell too many stories at once, but by cramming so many into one movie, each gets shortchanged, since there simply isn't enough screen time to go around. We follow five main characters, although events mostly unfold through the eyes of two love-hate sisters, Dana (Jenny Slate) and Ali (Abby Quin). Dana is in her early 30s, has a less-than-exciting job at what appears to be an architectural firm, and is engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass), who's playful and funny but not exactly dangerous.
Dana's mostly traditional lifestyle makes her the safe and predictable sister compared to Ali, who, like most teenagers, is difficult, snappy and rebellious. She smokes, experiments with drugs, and sneaks out of her family's New York City apartment to go clubbing. Her parents, Alan (John Turturro) and Pat (Edie Falco), do what they can to discipline her, like take away her landline telephone (the film takes place in 1995), but they've become so jaded by their own routines and lack of romance, they essentially leave Ali up to her own devices.
One night, while exploring the contents of a floppy disk, Ali discovers love letters her father allegedly wrote to a woman he refers to as “C.” She tells Dana, who has just succumbed to her own adulterous temptations after running into Nate (Finn Wittrock), an old college friend who just happens to be charming, chiseled and clean shaven compared to Ben. He also happens to be a jerk, and once Dana realizes this, it's not especially hard to predict where her story will go.
The heart of the movie stems from Dana and Ail bonding as they try to uncover the truth about their father's supposed affair. This is something they haven't done in a long time, but now is as good a time as ever, because both find themselves at critical junctures in their lives, with Dana getting married and Ali about to graduate high school. Both are also seeking to establish themselves beyond what people expect of them, which isn't easy.
It's obvious Robespierre has made Landline a very personal project and we can easily identify what were probably real-life episodes in the screenplay by Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm, from a story by Robespierre, Holm and Tom Bean. Though the movie feels genuine, and the cast is strong and shows good chemistry, the assumed love affair plot loses steam after a while and the outcome doesn't really matter to us. When Falco's character finally gets her moment and the truth is revealed, it feels insignificant. That's probably because we haven't gotten to know the mom and dad as much as Dana and Ali, and to then revolve the final act around the parents' marriage seems like a poor judgement call. It only takes away from Dana and Ali's stories, which consequently wrap up too neatly and quickly.
Don't get me wrong; there are some nice, funny scenes sprinkled throughout Landline, including a gross but endearing moment shared between Dana and Josh while standing in the shower; or Dana and Ali drinking spiked Mountain Dew as they practice synchronized swimming; or the parents admiring Hillary Clinton's wardrobe (remember, this is 1995); and a drug deal gone awry.
But ultimately, Landline is just an okay comedy-drama with some punchy moments here and there that don't really tug at our emotions or senses of humor strongly enough to make a huge impact. Watching it is like listening to someone - in this case Robespierre - share memories of their upbringing, and though we admire their affection and enthusiasm, we're not all that interested in what they have to say because the narrative connecting their recollections is simply average instead of engaging.
Had Robespierre focused on just Dana and Ali and patiently seen a specific aspect of their lives all the way through, the movie might have flowed better and we would have found greater purpose in it. Unfortunately, it tries to do too much in too little time and wear multiple labels, all to the point where it feels inconsequential. It's ironic, but at the beginning of this review, I mentioned the good thing about Landline is that it doesn't confine itself to any one category, and yet, this also ends up being its weakness.