Landline tries hard to be another touching portrayal of a dysfunctional family whose members make poor life decisions but then learn from them. There are the siblings who squabble but then grow close, the parents whose marriage isn’t in great shape until they find each other again, the rebellious teen who fights with mom and dad but then is humbled. If you consider any of the above a spoiler, you’re probably looking forward to watching your first movie.
The film is the second collaboration between writer-director Gillian Robespierre and comedian Jenny Slate, following 2014’s Obvious Child, and they’ve hit the sophomore slump. Slate plays Dana, an engaged woman who’s living with her strait-laced fiance, Ben (Jay Duplass), and who isn’t terribly excited about getting married. Just when it looks as if Dana will be the main character, the focus shifts to Ali (Abby Quinn), Dana’s teenage sister. Ali regularly sneaks out of the house to go clubbing, hang with her boyfriend, and dabble with some serious drugs. Her mother (Edie Falco) knows that Ali lies about where she spends her time but hasn’t a clue how to stop it. Her father (John Turturro) seems content to look the other way. Needless to say, there’s a bitter rift in their relationship. Oh, and adultery.
Robespierre, who co-wrote the script with Elisabeth Holm, throws all of this at you in the first 30 minutes. The result is a scattershot depiction of the family that doesn’t feel like a story but a pastiche of the ideas that ended up in the writers’ garbage can. And for a film that’s being marketed as a comedy, there’s a decided lack of laughs. Slate can be charming but here she’s just annoying, with an obnoxious cackle that peppers Dana’s every interaction. It’s ironic when Dana says to Ali, “You are such an irritant!”
The film settles into a sufficient groove at its halfway point, though you’ll be more invested than entertained. (Seriously, it takes that long for it to deliver a good joke.) Cheating, emotional distance, and cold feet are the main themes as the characters work to bridge the divides between them—though when Dana tells Ben that she’s going to stay at her parents’ house for a few days because her sister needs her, it’s awfully abrupt, and the inevitable bond that ensues doesn’t feel earned.
The title is a reference to the period in which the story is set: 1995. But it’s arbitrary. Nothing in the script besides Dana bumping into someone at a CD listening station hinges on ’90s culture or technology; at one point Ali gets her phone—yes, a landline—taken away, but parents could just as easily confiscate their kid’s cell in the present day. Waiting for the title to have some significance is nearly as futile as waiting for a laugh, and even if you’re cool with just the life-is-confusing dramatic aspects of the script, these characters never quite gel as a family. (Though Slate and Quinn bear an impressive resemblance.)
And despite Robespierre and Holm’s attempt to infuse the goings-on with Deep Thoughts, only young Ali says anything that counts as a genuine and original insight. Maybe that’s Landline’s period justification: Teenagers were more thoughtful before they started staring at phones. Landline opens Friday at Angelika Film Center and Landmark E Street Cinema.