I have a pretty dysfunctional family. In fact, when I came out of the theater after seeing Landline, I had a text from my sister with a fresh family crisis waiting for me. So I kind of get this movie, to say the least.
While dysfunctional-family-life often is quite devastating, in my experience, most of the time, even the crappiest moments are received with some indifference, and always with humor. Landline paints that picture. There’s disillusionment, regret, sorrow, but there's also jokes, smiles, and even dancing.
All four members of the Jacobs family in Landline have learned how to lead their complicated lives with a good amount of comedy. Dana (Jenny Slate, Obvious Child) is engaged, but she’s feeling unsure about her decision, and finds herself drawn to the arms of an ex. Ali (Abby Quinn) is a teenager trying to keep her balance while experimenting with all manner of waywardness. Pat (Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie) is a great mom who has to balance caring for her family with caring for herself. And Alan (John Turturro, Barton Fink) is a writer who, Ali discovers, is having an affair with someone he addresses as ‘C’ in his love poems.
Movies about a modern family falling apart have become pretty common by now, but there is little that is common about this one. For one, it’s about a Jewish-Italian family living in 1990’s New York. The 90’s decade is pretty unexplored these days, so it was interesting to watch a movie set during this time. A friend of mine likes to say that the 80’s decade was the party, and the 90’s was the hangover. Landline takes place in this tension, between the recklessness of the party and the malaise of the hangover. Cheat on your wife, cheat on your fiancee, take drugs, but, as Lorde sings, “What will we do when we’re sober?” It’s the 90’s, but it’s also the 2010’s!
I love the way this story unfolds. Oftentimes, in my life, even significant crises have not taken place in big, dramatic events, but can actually be somewhat mundane (or am I just that jaded? lol). Similarly, things don’t usually happen in big moments in Landline. It would be difficult to point out the precise transitions between setting, conflict, rising action, etc. Even when Ali discovers her dad’s affair, or when Dana hooks up with her ex, there is a quality of ordinariness to it. This helped give the movie a ‘real life’ feel.
Writers Elisabeth Holm and Gillian Robespierre said in an interview that this was precisely their goal. They wanted everything to feel as real life as possible. Their script reflects this goal entirely. Instead of getting exciting moments that signal new phases in the film, we just hang out with Dana and Ali the whole time, experiencing their life along the way, and, I should add, it’s really great!
Slate and Quinn as Dana and Ali carry the movie so well. Their chemistry is perfect, and we spend a lot of time with their characters as they bicker, joke around, dance, and reflect on everything that’s happening. Exactly like siblings do.
I had only seen Jenny Slate in Parks and Recreation, where her character Mona Lisa is a wild, hilarious caricature. In Landline, however, she has so much depth. Holm and Robespierre explicitly wrote this character for Slate, and even developed the character with her. And it shows.
Dana chides her sister for doing drugs and breaking rules, and yet she encounters her own unruly side in her own life. She is really funny, sometimes in a witty way, and at other times in an almost slapstick way. Dana is so full of life that a lot of the joy of watching the film just comes from observing her. The wildness of Mona Lisa from Parks & Rec is still there, but with an additional Tina Fey-like wit, and the pain of real life. “I’m flailing,” she confesses to her dad, and we see it all.
I think my favorite thing about the movie is that it does depict real life, but not in an overly devastating way. I know personally the feeling of discovering infidelity in my family, the guilt of cheating on someone, and the malaise of parents separating. Just about every theme of this movie hit home for me, and at no point did I think, “It was way worse than that!” On the contrary, the film’s lasting humor rang just as true as its drama.
While directors often try to depict real life by showing devastating or depressing ‘realities’, Landline depicts what, to me, is even more realistic. It shows us that humor is as much a part of mourning as pain is, laughter as much a part of suffering as tears.
So, excuse me, I’m going to go watch Obvious Child now.