“Landline,” the latest film from writer-director Gillian Robespierre, is set in a time when women dressed like Elaine from “Seinfeld” and people checked their messages via pay phone—in other words, New York City, 1995. Yet, despite the fact that the movie is set more than 20 years ago (smart phones are conspicuously absent), the characters couldn’t feel more vibrant and contemporary. Like “Obvious Child”—Robespierre’s first film— “Landline” is an unusually honest story about people who stumble into, and make, big glorious messes that sometimes resolve themselves and sometimes don’t.
Here, those people are the members of a Manhattan-based, Jewish-Italian family, and those messes involve drugs, truancy and, most of all, infidelity. There are two core plot lines in “Landline” from which all other dysfunction stems. In one, Ali (Abby Quinn)—the youngest daughter of the family—stumbles upon evidence that her father, Alan (John Turturro) may be carrying on an affair. In the other, the eldest daughter, Dana (Jenny Slate)—stuck in an increasingly dull rut with her fiancé—begins hooking up with a square-jawed former flame. Both narratives are handled beautifully. Two movies in, Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm remain dedicated to telling stories about people who don’t know what they want, whose motivations are not always clear and who, regardless of—or perhaps, because of—all that swirling ambiguity, manage to stir something in us. That we’re made to feel part of the dysfunction, part of the family, is a testament to the quality of Robespierre and Holm’s work.
While “Obvious Child” is an intimate portrait painted on a small canvas—the film follows a single character through a handful of New York locales—“Landline” is larger and more intricate (note the extensive period detail). And yet, the hilarity and intimacy remain. Here, the filmmakers juggle multiple storylines, and efficiency of plot is of the utmost concern. There are pieces of the story we’re left wanting more of, particularly as things begin to wrap up, but as far as sophomore efforts go, this one is extraordinary.
“Landline” opens with a family at a crossroads. Each of them is looking for something better than what they have, navigating longing and regret in similar ways. Dana—played with virtuosic comic timing by Jenny Slate—is engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass), a nice guy who doesn’t always say the right things. They’re comfortable, but some of the initial infatuation has worn off, and the appearance of a new, shockingly handsome beau from Dana’s university days complicates things further. Ali is applying for college and feeling out a no-labels relationship with a classmate. She responds to her parents’ simple, genuine questions with answers like “crack” and “butt stuff.” And then there’s Pat (Edie Falco) and Alan (John Turturro), their parents. They bicker often. She resents him for his ultra-passive parenting style, and he resents her for not supporting his writing or loving him the way she used to.
And then, stumbling through a drug-fueled haze, Ali happens upon a floppy disk belonging to her father. It’s chocked-full of terrible erotic poetry, written for someone called "C." Her discovery sets things into action, and, as the movie’s pace quickens, family members begin to collide with one another in a series of roaring arguments and quiet barbs.
Ali and Dana—mostly combative at the film’s start—become close. They drink together and make excuses together and surveil their father at work together. Slate and Quinn show us everything, acting via laughter and a quiet, coded intimacy. There’s a collection of scenes at their parents’ cabin, where, after a squabble, a few drinks and some hair braiding, the sisters dance. Out of breath, Ali says, “I like dancing. I don’t think I’ve ever danced with you before.” They’re figuring each other out, marveling at the other’s little implosions and subtly lending a hand when possible.
Those kinds of scenes abound in “Landline”: a woman and her daughters smoking on the floor of the bathroom, a father teaching his youngest to drive, teenage lovers talking around their feelings and a woman drinking by herself at a run-down bar’s disco night. They’re small scenes where imperfect people say the wrong thing, struggle to connect and often come to a new understanding of themselves and others.
Despite some relatively heavy subject matter, “Landline” is one of the funniest movies to grace the screen in some time. Robespierre and Holm have a gift for mining hilarity out of raw honesty, so that the audience isn’t simply laughing at the intricate—sometimes shockingly dirty—construction of a joke, they’re also laughing in recognition. There’s a sex scene midway through the film that’s in the running for funniest coitus-based bit ever. Additional details are better left on the screen.
Robespierre’s direction is fairly simple and primarily functions in service of the script, though with such extraordinary writing and acting, that’s far from a bad thing. Falco and Turturro give a pair of performances that are quietly heartbreaking, and as for Quinn, I wouldn’t be surprised if she became a bona fide movie star in the next couple of years.
It’s both a compliment and a critique that the film leaves us wanting more. At one point, Robespierre uses a montage to expedite the mending of a relationship. We don’t get to listen in on the conversations that lead to resolution. We wind up missing the good stuff. And that’s especially problematic in a movie like “Landline,” so honest and full of life that any narrative artifice winds up feeling jarring.
For now, we can only hope that when that third feature rolls into theaters, hearty, genuine laughs of recognition still abound—so far, it’s the only fitting reaction to Robespierre’s cinematic paeans to wonderfully messy people.
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