In a perfect world, Jenny Slate would be America’s undisputed sweetheart. With her lopsided smile and quixotic lunges at happiness that strew confusion in the wake of good intentions, she is the quintessence of a good person confused by a zeitgeist that provides many options, but few guidelines. Reuniting with her OBVIOUS CHILD director/writer Gillian Robespierre, Slate blunders through the world again in LANDLINE, a gut-wrenching comedy set in 1995, a time before the cell phone became ubiquitous, and could intrude on introspection with the miracle of instant communication. Or maybe just confuse that introspection in heretofore unsuspected ways.
Slate is Dana, a New Yorker safely ensconced in a career and in a relationship with adoring fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass) that are both comfortable, and thereby hands this tale. A chance encounter with a charismatic old college friend (Finn Wittrock) of Dana and Ben’s results in the last thing she would have ever considered: an affair. Not that we in the audience are entirely surprised. The opening scene of LANDLINE gives us Dana and Ben trying to add some spark to their sex life with a less than satisfying bout of outdoor coupling. The hormonal rush and the spontaneity are irresistible.
As if this wasn’t disconcerting enough, Dana’s disconsolate teenage sister, Ali (Abby Quinn) has just discovered that their father, Alan (John Turturro) is having an affair, despite being happily married to their mother, Pat (Edie Falco), and is grappling with finding the right label for what she feels for Ravi (Jordan Carlos), her fellow high-school senior with whom she hooks up.
There is a certain nostalgic whimsy in seeing the old technology that betrays Alan’s secret, and to Pat’s emulating Hilary Clinton’s latest pantsuit, but there is also tenderness for all concerned about the questions raised by LANDLINE, the answers to which the passage of two decades have not revealed. Dana’s pain is real. The way she deals with it is clumsy and wildly amusing. The good-natured bemusement of Ben and of Dana’s parents when she leaves the former to move back in with the latter, expressed as respect for her privacy while it also obviously concerns them mightily. The unpreparedness of Alan and Pat to Ali’s eschewing of open defiance as she ignores curfews and disappears for swaths of time. The bonding over secrets between the two sisters as they snipe and support one another while also investigating the identity of their father’s mysterious other woman. The readjustment of relationship paradigms that can lead to tears or compassion.
By using richly nuanced characters, and Slate’s ability to generate empathy even when doing what she knows is wrong, we are spared the cliché of villains, a mistake that would have negated the point of the story altogether. Instead we see a family where frustrated playwright dad likes to have the Benihana chef lob shrimp at his mouth across the grill, power executive mom lets profanity fly with palpable affection, and neither of them are quite sure what how to reach their daughters. The beauty and the joy of this film is that no one, in fact, is quite sure what to do except cling to those that they love most. LANDLINE is a wise and witty dissection of human interaction at its most intimate and its most ham-handed, and one that isn’t afraid to break our hearts.