In preparing for this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I had reserved a disproportionate amount of excitement for Gillian Robespierre’s new movie Landline. Having loved her feature debut Obvious Child, which premiered at the fest three years back, I was excited to see Robespierre inject a similar edge and vitality into a new story, once again with her de facto muse Jenny Slate in tow. This time around, Robespierre’s focus feels decidedly more “adult.” As she trades up themes like dating and unplanned pregnancy for marriage and parent-child relationships, Robespierre likewise eschews the erratic pulse of Obvious Child for a softer, slower, solider aesthetic.
As a result, Landline doesn’t feel much like a sibling to its magnetically youthful 2014 predecessor, but more akin to the patient family dramedies you’re likely to find rounding out the usual Sundance schedule or your local art house matinée marquee. That said, Robespierre and Obvious Child writing partner Elisabeth Holm adorn their new screenplay with the occasional calling card; even if delivered at a slower speed, the same wit that helped realize Obvious Child as something more than just your typical romantic comedy effects similar efforts on Landline.
The family in question is the Jacobs clan: a foursome of well-off Clinton-era Manhattanites whose love for one another is rivaled only by their communal dislike. Ad man and aspiring playwright Alan (John Turturro) shoots daggers at his wife for her dismissal of his creative ambitions. Dutiful matriarch and businesswoman Pat (Edie Falco) lays down the law when her younger daughter eschews school for drugs and partying. Baby-of-the-family Ali (newcomer Abby Quinn, who delivers teenage scorn like nobody's business) resents both her parents for their perceived hypocrisy. Then there’s peacekeeper Dana (Slate), Alan and Pat’s older daughter who manages an amicable relationship with all parties…but whose engagement to nice guy Ben (Jay Duplass) may be hitting the rocks.
Though that rundown may project an unpleasant dynamic, Landline is hardly wanting for brighter material. Indeed, the film’s best work is in birthing love and affection from this sea of mutually assured derision; in evasion of her premarital problems, Dana seeks refuge in a newly refurbished friendship with her cantankerous younger sister. Under duress from their own longstanding issues, Alan and Pat find hope in their relationships with their daughters. In high moments and low, the especially clever Jacobses are duly entertaining, spewing well-tailored rejoinders and pop culture gags that should be the delight of any viewer. But more impressively, Landline manages to keep all its players consistently human, allowing empathy even for the wrongdoers.
Robespierre's Landline may be a far cry from the film that won her our attention in the first place, but it's hardly without a few of the same strengths. Where Landline falls short of its predecessor, however, is in its diminished bite. In subject matter, dialogue, and its overzealous ambition to forgive its characters' transgressions and smooth out their conflicts, it partially defangs itself. Rushing to the happy ending may have cost Landline too large a chunk of its emotional impact, but time spent with the family on screen—sisters Dana and Ali especially—isn't likely to leave you without a warmer heart and a few good laughs.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 burritos
Images: Sundance Institute
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.