Jenny Slate and director Gillian Robespierre did some fantastic work together with 2014’s Obvious Child, a film that was a hit at that year’s Sundance Film Festival and launched Slate’s career into the mainstream. It captured the quirks, stigmas, alienation, if you will, of the millennial generation in both new and surprising ways.
If that film felt assured and confident in its delivery, then Landline feels like quite the opposite. It stars Slate, Edie Falco, John Turturro, Jay Duplass and Abby Quinn and is much more ambitious in scope to Child, as it tackles numerous New York City characters who are looking for some kind of existential meaning to their dreadfully meaningless existence by resorting to lying and infidelity. Here come the indie cliches.
Set in 1995 Manhattan, the film makes sure to hint at the fact that this was a time when there was no internet, no cellphones, plenty of record stores were thriving and fashion was at a standstill with the grunge movement. The period details are specific, but well painted and invoke a time and place that is starting to fell all-too prehistoric when compared to this generation’s internet boom.
The problems that lie in the movie come from Roberspierre making her characters self-absorbed and unlikable, which, in turn, makes you not care too much about their impending fates or how self-destructivey naive they all are. By the time the climactic battle, quite literally, of punches and words shows up you just don’t care.
The film’s soundtrack, however, is a gem, using ’90’s music to enhance the atmosphere and setting. Robespierre uses the decade’s music scene to paint a broader picture of her story, with a particular highlight being a dance sequence set to Steve Winwood’s all-too-underrated “Bring Me a Higher Love.”
The film’s Italian-Jewish family includes John Turturro’s Alan, who works in an advertising firm and dreams of, yikes, becoming a playwright. His wife, Pat (Edie Falco), seems to run things around the house, which in turn seems to emasculate her husband and drives him deeper into his depression. They also have two millenial daughters: Dana (Jenny Slate), recently engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass), but cheating behind his back and Ali (Abby Quinn), whom embarks in a mostly sexual relationship, quite possibly her first one. Robespierre seems to imply that despite the age gaps of parents and children, not much has changed in our selfish yearning for more than we already have.
The film’s episodic nature does tend to reveal interesting moments here and there, especially whenever Slate appears on-screen. The charisma and good-natured neuroticism that she brought in Obvious Child was no fluke and it, again, appears in Landline. She has the capacity to, not only, speak to her generation in interesting and profound ways, but to, even more importantly, say that it’s okay for a millennial woman to be, imperfect, flawed and confused. In that way, she’s an heir to the Lena Dunham school of thought and has a bright future ahead of her.
Much of the rest of the actors seem to be miscast, though, especially the older ones. Falco’s story could have used a few snips here and there, and same goes for Turturro’s, who seems so out of place in a cringe-inducing manner. Ultimately, the parents’ narrative ends up being disruptive to the more interesting conflict: Dana’s.
Robespierre is a talent, no doubt about it, but she should concern herself more with millennial angst as that seems to be her specialty at conveying raw, humane emotions. She and Slate make a formidable, interesting pair together and I do look forward to their next venture, but Landline is a disappointing venture.