With the indie hit “Obvious Child,” writer-director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate somehow proved you could cobble together something messy, funny, sad and romantic out of the impending termination of a pregnancy, and, I suppose, the rarely addressed condition known as “pee farting.” It wasn’t great filmmaking, or transcendent comedy, but it bubbled with sweet rudeness and honesty about dating mores and women’s big decisions, and showed off Slate as a spiky heroine to watch.
Robespierre’s sophomore feature “Landline” also features Slate, as one-fourth of a dysfunctional Italian-Jewish New York family, and once more, there’s an occasionally alchemic mix of relationship malaise and bawdy humor (peeing is back, albeit in the shower, as a sign of one couple’s intimacy).
But without the novelty of a hot-button issue like abortion as a kind of netting through which to view an otherwise standard-issue urban neurosis comedy, “Landline” fails to catch fire. Crumbling nuclear families are a well-worn movie genre; you could even add “in Manhattan” to that description and the examples would be many. “Landline” is simply another one, not appreciably worse than the average, but not much better, either.
The title hints at a pre-digital age of communication, and indeed, “Landline” is set in 1995, when one could count on a measure of independence from the ties that bind when not near a telephone. It’s also the era of stonewashed jeans, floppy disks, CD-store listening stations and Hillary Clinton’s
The tight-knit but tense atmosphere around the upper-middle-class Jacobs clan, however — parents Pat (Edie Falco) and Alan (John Turturro), adult daughter Dana (Slate) and still-at-home high schooler Ali (Abby Quinn) — is emotionally timeless. The Jacobs still vacation together at their family lake house, but there are some prickly dynamics that have turned into fault lines.
The sisters are epic, willfully crass bickerers, while mother and father are obviously at different ends of the personality spectrum: Alan is a happy-go-lucky ad copywriter and ever-aspiring playwright with a chummy relationship with his rebellious younger daughter, while Pat is a tough-minded, brusque EPA bigwig who feels she gets no respect or help in being the enforcer with Ali, who has started to experiment with boys and drugs.
At the same time, Dana, a magazine graphic designer, harbors percolating doubts about her upcoming marriage to devoted, nebbishy fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass), going so far as to turn an innocent run-in with a hunky college flame (a perfectly rascally Finn Witrock) into a full-on fling, one that involves the Woody Allen-ish touch of movie balcony sex at a documentary about Nazis.
What brings these malcontents of varying temperaments into a single narrative thread of family crisis, however, is Ali’s late-night discovery on the house Mac II of a folder filled with love poems written by Alan to a mysterious woman referred to as “C.” Between stalking dad to identify his mistress and debating whether to tell mom, the sisters grow closer, a process that nevertheless reveals its own crossed pathways: Ali finds herself softening a bit toward her judgmental mother, while Dana, awakened by her infidelity and newly invigorated by bonding with Ali, moves back home and turns into an immature teen (clubbing, boozing, eyebrow piercing) all over again.
Robespierre, who wrote the screenplay with her “Obvious Child” collaborator Elisabeth Holm, works well with her excellent cast, even if you sense she’d rather simply turn her camera on Slate’s pipsqueak-voiced energy and let Dana’s regressive antics run roughshod over everything. Slate and Quinn believably toggle between irritated with each other and united in suspense over their father’s seeming infidelity. It’s a simultaneously steely and fragile sisterhood, and though it never really lands emotionally, the actors always keep it amusing and credible.
What you want more of is Falco and Turturro, who nail a decades-long relationship that has devolved from falling in love at a Lenny Bruce concert — when Turturro’s Alan mentions this memory fondly, he makes you see the date he’s treasured so much — to an imbalanced rut of peacekeeping and recriminations. Turturro shows he should be given more gently broken souls to play, while Falco delivers a standout portrayal of a dutiful, tired businesswoman-mother-wife who’s forgotten the mix of affection, wisdom and authority that wins people to her side.
It’s too bad the movie doesn’t dig deeper when bringing its conflicts to a head, but Robespierre’s more interested in affecting a vibe than selling epiphanies. It stands her well enough when her actors are present and working a scene for piquant bits of humor and realism (the women all get a nicely parsed final-act exhalation in a cramped bathroom, for instance). But what “Landline” leaves you with is unlikely to stay. If this were an episode in an anthology series on damaged urbanites, you could lead a season with it, but you wouldn’t make it your finale.