Three years later, this same reviewer brought Marianas Trench level expectations to Landline, the reunion of director/co-writer Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate — and, for reasons that will be discussed below, had basically the exact opposite experience of watching their first collaboration.
Unlike that…other movie, it’s clear early on in Landline that it’s not a loathsome film about loathsome people, but rather a thoroughly funny and charming one.
The 1995 New York City setting helps as far as fortifying the film’s refined quirkiness, but the period details (e.g. pay phones, answering services, fashion choices, trendy music and floppy disks) are merely bonuses atop Robespierre’s and co-screenwriter Elisabeth Holm’s well-drawn, believable characters caught up in real, relatable conflicts.
Front and center is Dana (Slate) and her fear that she and her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass) may not be as well matched as they think. On a parallel storyline, her rising high school senior sister Ali (relative newcomer Abby Quinn) sneaks out to visit clubs, have sex and take drugs, much to the displeasure of their mother Pat (Edie Falco) and, to a lesser extent, father Alan (John Turturro).
The rapport between these core five folks and the mature weaving of their travails is already remarkable within a handful of scenes, but is augmented by the simple fact that Falco and Turturro are so physically believable as Slate’s parents that it’s conceivable a paternity test would reveal as much.
Facial recognition software couldn’t turn out a better genetic match for their characteristics than Slate and the inspired casting makes the family’s interactions all the more enjoyable.
Continuing the sisters’ simultaneous yet separate growing pains, Dana randomly crosses paths with old flame Nate (Finn Wittrock, The Big Short), with whom she obviously still has chemistry, compounding her vulnerability caused by things with Ben not being as spicy as they once were.
Right around that time, through hilarious period means Ali discovers clues that her dad might be having an affair and bands with Dana to investigate. The two bond in ways both assumed were no longer possible, challenging each other to be better people (and better sisters and daughters).
Captured through Robespierre’s effective mix of sufficiently steady handheld camerawork and gorgeous, expansive tripod shots of NYC, the Landline players are consistently amusing and honest characters, even – perhaps especially — when they’re deceiving others and themselves.
Borderline unwatchable the last time she and Robespierre worked together, Slate is the clear MVP of their sophomore effort. Not only has the writer/director given her star the film’s richest part, but Slate validates this trust in her with numerous little improvised lines and gestures — some humorous, others heartbreaking — that add another layer of authenticity to Dana’s human and humane relationships.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Starts August 4 at Grail Moviehouse
(Photo: Amazon Studios)