Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre are one of the best actor/director pairings in the industry.
“Landline” is writer/director Robespierre’s follow-up to “Obvious Child,” the 2014 gem of an abortion rom-com flick, which might have been the best independent release of that year. Both films have the same fearless sense of humor, and both are perfect vehicles for Slate and Robespierre’s working chemistry. As collaborators, the duo has an insatiable energy unlike anything else I’ve seen on film. Writer Robespierre has found the perfect muse in actor Slate for her witty, tragic comedies about young adults who still haven’t figured out how to grow up.
In “Landline,” Slate plays Dana Jacobs, a misguided 20-something in the mid-1990s who’s terrified of stagnancy in her healthy but unvaried engagement — so much so that she has an affair with an old flame. Meanwhile, her younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn) and mother Pat (Edie Falco) are dealing with their own identity crises. Ali is a high school senior, a rebellious spirit who would rather party than apply for college. Pat is trying to sort through the aftermath of discovering her husband (John Turturro) is having an affair. Dana and Ali find comfort in each other, and later in their mother, as they struggle to figure out their place in the world.
The characters in “Landline” are easy to hate. They’re insufferable, but in a magnetic sort of way. In some ways, it’s a movie about privilege. Why would middle-class Manhattanites who own a vacation home outside the city be so unhappy? It’s a little infuriating to see the Jacobs family make decisions that they know are bad from the outset, but Robespierre also makes them sympathetic. We’re reminded of Ali’s youth in the Rolling Stone covers of Hole and Winona Ryder above her bed. Dana has her sister’s same immaturity and self-destructive tendencies, but she’s also kind in a way Ali isn’t — yet. A child at heart, Dana may be, but she also wants to protect her sister from the infidelity around her.
Although Slate’s is the standout performance of “Landline,” the performances of her on-screen family are equally formidable. Dana’s arc is sandwiched between the frenetic angst of her younger sister’s generation, which Quinn portrays with the necessary amounts of irritation and hedonism, and the calmer, more resigned one of her mother, depicted by Falco with an almost unnerving steadiness.
There’s a kind of desperation in “Landline” that isn’t as apparent in “Obvious Child.” “Landline” is full of dark corners where its characters get lost in self-doubt. In one scene in which Dana voices her anxiety, we get a moment of soul-crushing reality:
“I’m just trying to figure out if the life I picked for myself is the life I want,” she says. “And I don’t even know if I’m allowed to ask that question.” Ouch.
Robespierre is great at that kind of existentialism. She lures you in with witty one-liners, and then she breaks your heart. But you always walk out of the theater having learned something about yourself.
— Edited by Danya Issawi