LANDLINE (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated R
(for sexual content, strong language, and drug use)
Released:  July 21, 2017 limited; August 4 expands
Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Gillian Robespiere
Starring: Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, John Turturro

The first half of Landline – a female-fueled comedy-drama set in the 1990s – plays like an HBO pilot that only scratches the surface of its potential but doesn’t fulfill it, a show more about its concept than its characters, relying too heavily on nostalgia kitsch. Thankfully, the second half is like the follow-up episode in which the series confidentially finds its voice.

The title is an inspired metaphor for a New York family of mostly women who, along with the lone male husband/father, are as lacking in communication skills as the pre-cellphone age is in communication technology. The phones are immobile, and so is the family.

Ali, the teenager (Abby Quinn), is exploring her sexuality and boundaries in general, the adult daughter Dana (Jenny Slate) is being tempted away from her fiancé by a cuter guy, and mom Pat (Edie Falco) shows little affection or respect for her husband Alan (John Turturro). When Ali suspects that her dad may be having an affair, it messes with both her, Dana, and what they’re each respectively going through.

With a glut of pop culture references and excessively jaded irony, Landline gets off to a contrived, at times clunky single-camera sitcomy start. Dialogue can be too clever for its own good, the narrative flow too loosely, the comedy aggressively crude, with jokes that feel pulled straight from a stack in a writer’s room. The net effect is a movie too self-conscious about the era it’s in, with its parts overcompensating for a lack of depth. Whatever moments it has, they involve Falco and Turturro.

It’s a generic regression from the bold, audacious debut of Obvious Child, the previous collaboration between star Jenny Slate and director Gillian Robespiere (her directorial debut), an “abortion” comedy that, regardless of your feelings about its message (I’m pro-life myself), marked the beginning of a fresh new unfiltered voice that was actually trying to be honest and not merely provocative. That voice is lost in Landline’s first half as it merely caters to late Gen-Xers with a “Hey, remember that?” entertainment value and little else.

But just when you’re ready to hang up on this movie’s dial tone (forgive the crass punny indulgence), Landline really starts to connect. It’s no coincidence that it occurs when this ensemble shifts its focus to Slate’s Dana as the lead. Clearly Slate and Robespiere are, as artists and storytellers, psychically simpatico, so it’s natural (and smart) that the film would gravitate toward their center. The more Landline evolves into Dana’s arc, the better the movie becomes.

This occurs when Dana begins to seriously examine her life, question her choices, take stock of where she’s headed, and if the life she’s choosing for herself is the one she wants. Oddly enough, as the other characters downshift into supporting roles, it’s then that they actually become richer, particularly the parents who stop living in denial about the trouble their marriage is in. There’s a confrontation between Falco and Turturro so raw that, even in its brevity, it’s one of the standout scenes of the year.

The superb cast also includes Jay Duplass who, as Dana’s fiancé Ben, elevates being “the safe choice” to a legitimate virtue.

Landline goes from slight to significant, dispensing of easy 90s wistfulness to grasp onto something more honest, vulnerable, and real (even while maintaining its humor, and amplifying it). If HBO, Netflix, or some other premium outlet would like to sign this whole troupe up to explore these characters and era even further in a limited series run, Landline’s ending provides a natural beginning.

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