Even before the opening title hits the screen, the writer and director Gillian Robespierre clearly lays out the course of her family dysfunction dramedy “Landline.”
Charmingly twitchy up-and-comer Jenny Slate jitters through some coarse sexual humor; preternaturally soulful-yet-kinda-troubled teen Abby Quinn pops off to her sis during a crowded car ride with some cheek that would get you clobbered in the real world; and vexed-but-coping parents Edie Falco and John Turturro handle it, but don’t really handle it.
And everybody is safe.
That pretty much sums up the stakes in “Landline,” Robespierre’s second feature opening this weekend at Village 8 Theaters.
The film continues the director’s collaboration with co-writer Elisabeth Holm and Slate, but falls short of the exceptionally high bar they set together with 2014’s edgy “Obvious Child,” mainly because there’s never any sense, ultimately, that things may not end up OK for this quirky Manhattan brood beset by resentment and infidelity.
The performances are all very good, particularly Quinn as a “Buffy”-grade smartass. In fact, the whole exercise is evocative of the arch dialog and too-cool-for-school posture of the mid-’90s, when the film is set. (The title refers to, in large part, the fact that nobody carries a cellphone, making it easy for Quinn to skip out of the family apartment for deeply soulful but ultimately harmless mischief.)
Critics have compared “Landline” to Woody Allen films, but it’s really more “Grosse Pointe Blank” — everyone is just too clever and composed to be hurting. At the very least, the characters are all lashing out at life’s amorphous vagrancies, and not specifically at each other, neutering the film’s frequent efforts to go deep.
“Landline” centers on the sisters’ discovery that their father, a frustrated playwright, is cheating on their mom, the soul/boss of the family who resents always being the heavy. Older sister Slate, meanwhile, is having her own fling with a hunk as she questions her impending marriage to an affable twerp.
The standard tropes play out, along with not-quite-enough R-rated crassness to make you forget you are essentially watching a “very special” — sorry for the ‘80s flashback — “Mad About You” episode.
Again, the performances are all exceptionally good; Slate is completely engaging, but the aggressive directorial pace and often overt script simply doesn’t allow her performance to breathe. When her Dana calls in sick to blow off the afternoon, the person who answers doesn’t know she works there; she literally says “it’s on fire” when passed a freshly-lit joint.
“Landline” also indulges in a slew of timeframe minutia; there are enough mix tapes and playovers to make Cameron Crow blush. A snazzy cassette deck reverses its play direction after one track during a drunken sister bonding session — too much.
You can do a lot worse than “Landline” for a date night flick. Some of the jokes, particularly the crass ones, do land, and the talent on display is unquestionable. The film would have been better served, though, if it had stuck to its comedic strengths and not tried to pull off the very difficult trick of being both genuinely wrenching and cute at the same time.
“Landline” opens Friday, Aug. 4, at Village 8 Theatres, 4014 Dutchmans Lane.
If you’re in the market for some real discomfort along with your chuckles, we recommend these dark gems below.
The Savages (2007)
Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins
Philip Seymour Hoffman was always great, but Laura Linney steals the show as a frustrated East Village playwright (it’s just a mandatory slot in these pics, it seems) who is living off a conned personal trauma grant after 9/11. The Savage siblings must come to terms with each other as they deal with the dementia of their father, whom they have both genuinely feared and avoided for many years; Philip Bosco is outstanding as the dad. The tension here is real.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
Written and directed by Todd Solondz
Save this one for your third or fourth movie date, at least. “Dollhouse” is funny, but darkly so — it’s a completely unsentimental look at the struggles of an unpopular seventh-grade girl (Heather Matarazzo) as she tries to navigate school and her brutally unsupportive, often downright nasty family.
If you don’t have the right sense of humor, this one can be brutal; certainly no one is safe from the dysfunction on display here.