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Gillian Robespierre is one of the best young directors working in “indie” film today, and a lot of film critics would be willing to fight you if you claimed otherwise. Her first feature, the absolutely fabulous comedy Obvious Child paired her with actress, comedian, and Milton native Jenny Slate, who up until that point was famous for two things: A short film about a sneaker-wearing squeaky seashell, and saying “fuck” on live television when she was briefly a cast member on SNL. It was a massive success, and Slate’s now all over the place, starring as a perky Pomeranian in last year’s Secret Life of Pets and getting all over the tabloids for her brief relationship with Captain America himself, Chris Evans. Cinephiles all over have been eagerly anticipating Robespierre’s next work. So, when Independent Film Festival Boston announced that the two’s second feature, the dramedy Landline, would be screening at this year’s festival, everybody rightfully freaked the fuck out. Well, brace yourself, because you’re going to need to lower your expectations: It’s a bit of a charming mess, one that buries its excellent lede deep under unrealistic plot maneuvering, and centers itself around its least dramatically interesting character.
Set in New York, Landline tells the story of the Jacobs clan, for whom 1995 is one hell of a tumultuous year. Ali (Abby Quinn), a punkish kid who sneaks out at night to go to hot clubs and do drugs with her boyfriend-but-not, stumbles home one night and discovers a floppy disk full of love letters from her dad (a wonderful John Turturro) to an unknown woman named C. Naturally, she freaks the fuck out a little bit, and worries about telling her over-worked but stable mother (Edie Falco) what she’s discovered. She settles by letting her sister (Slate), who’s having an affair of her own, in on the family secret, and together they work to try and get more proof of their father’s infidelities. What they discover might tear their family apart.
First off, pop out your pogs and stock up on some Surge, because this movie is a walking “only 90’s kids will remember this” Facebook post. And seriously, that’s not a knock against it. That era’s fetishests will be super happy with this, as Robespierre and her production designers have faithfully captured a great deal of ’90s culture, and specifically, ’90s New York. Empty Zima bottles litter a literary party, grimy clubs are bathed in day-glow bracelets and lighting, and one particularly great gag involves Hillary Clinton and her fashion stylings from the era. Hell, characters use payphones to call their voicemail, and you know something is wrong with the state of recent historical cinema when that’s an indicator of good era-specific production design (perhaps that’s the reason why so many films set in the close-to-modern era are set in secluded places or suburbia these days — it’s easier to shoot around the untimely aspects of the setting). That accuracy is one of the great joys of Landline, and it’s a lot of fun watching cinematographer Chris Teague sneak these details into the film in a subtle way. But it’s not enough to hide the glaring fuck-ups in the story department.
To be frank, Landline suffers a bit from second movie syndrome, and it feels twice the length of its 93 minutes. It’s a common affliction: Altman had Brewster McCloud, Scorsese had Boxcar Bertha, and it can happen to anybody once they try to expand their horizons. Robespierre’s reach here exceeded her grasp just a little bit, and what starts as a pretty well-developed and tight script descends into cliche by the third act. By the time a character sits outside of their angered beau’s apartment with various peace offerings over the course of weeks, and nobody had called the cops on them, it’s pretty safe to say the grounded work done in the film earlier on had been smoothed over and forgotten about. The cast does a fantastic job picking up the slack for much of the film’s runtime, but even then there’s just not much they can do with that last 30 minutes. There’s three people credited for contributions to the story (Robespierre, producer and co-writer Elisabeth Holm, and Tom Bean) For a second, the film looks like it’s going to do something really interesting with its characters, and the possibilities of the conflicts it would bring into the family dynamic might have made it truly something special, but Robespierre and her co-writers don’t trust themselves enough to make it concrete, and instead they go for the single most obvious route that this could have gone down. It’s a real shame when you watch a potentially great movie slip through the director’s fingers, and you can actually feel that happen here.
Quinn’s character, ostensibly our protagonist, is frighteningly annoying for much of the runtime (though the young actress does well with what she’s given), as she plays the kind of infallibly precocious teenager seen in lots of other media as a protagonist. You know the type: The one who can accurately psychoanalyze people years and years older than her with not very much information or life experience and, in “period pieces” like this one, just so happen to like every single thing and had done all the stuff the authors wish they’d had at the time (say, clubbing and experimenting with heroin and listening to the good Yo La Tengo records and having parents cool enough not to ship you off to wilderness camp). For those sick of that kind of archetype, it’ll make you long for last year’s The Edge of Seventeen or even the Kristen Stewart character in Adventureland, and for those who harbor the delusion that they didn’t like dumb shit or make colossal fucking mistakes when they were a teenager, this might be the movie for you. It’s just sort of a shame, as the focus on Quinn and her perceptions of her family overwhelm the truly great performance at the heart of the film: Jenny Slate’s.
When Slate’s alone on screen, dealing with her own issues, the film’s tone changes into something more melancholy and emotional, and it becomes truly fantastic. She’s magnetic when she’s not being forced by the script to be the more animated counterpart to Quinn’s angsty teenager, and the forty-five minutes or so devoted to the story of her straying from her fiance (Jay Duplass, here giving his brother a run for his money) and fucking a dude straight out of Reality Bites (Finn Wittrock, cementing his reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest go-to “but he’s so handsome!” assholes) is some of the best grounded dramatic filmmaking you’ll see all year. By no means is this Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she’s still given plenty of chances to be witty, and god only knows what this movie would be without her particularly joyous blend of comedy, but her dramatic work just stunned. Slate always seems to get at the truth of the moment, no matter how expertly-crafted (and sort of false) the screenplay she’s working from might be. For all our sakes, we should hope that she continues along with Robespierre and other great filmmakers and becomes something akin to a modern-day Albert Brooks, back when he had his hit parade in the ’70s and ’80s, and stops being cast as a third or fourth stringer in empty stuff like Gifted.
As it stands, Landline will undoubtedly please a lot of people who are into Robespierre and Slate’s prior work, and they won’t be wrong for enjoying a whole lot of it: It’s breezy, funny and looks great. Some won’t, probably citing similar reasons to the one in this review. But be wary of those saying that this is significantly better than Obvious Child, or one of the best comedies of the year, or an honest portrayal of almost anything except for Slate’s part. That way, you won’t be disappointed by this endearing but deeply flawed movie, and hopefully be able to enjoy it more.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus; featured Landline photo courtesy of Sundance Institute by Chris Teague.