Gillian Robespierre Hits a Sophomore Slump with the Disconnected ‘Landline’

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Landline

With her breakout feature Obvious Child, Gillian Robespierre did something nearly impossible – making a funny, heartfelt comedy that dealt with the ever-sensitive topic of abortion. Needless to say, whatever would follow would be highly anticipated. For her second feature, Robespierre takes us back in time to a more innocent time all the way back in 1995 with her blend of familial comedy and drama, Landline. That anticipation has now given way to disappointment as Robespierre is just the latest immensely talented filmmaker to fall into the sophomore slump. With a talented director and a cast of immense talent, Landline should be a movie that pops. Instead Robespierre’s film is sadly flat, meandering about its story with scant laughs and a story that fails to bring home any of its intended emotional impact.

The film opens with Dana (Jenny Slate) and her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass) attempting to have sex in the woods near her parents’ summer home in the woods. After that fails, the couple join Dana’s parents Pat (Edie Falco) and Alan (John Turturro) as well as her younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn) for an awkward drive back to New York City. In the city, Ali sneaks out at night to hit the clubs, where she experiments with various drugs. Meanwhile, Dana runs into an old friend from college with Nate (Finn Wittrock), and the two wind up having an affair that sends Dana into a panic. Without telling Ben why, she moves back into her parents’ apartment. One night Ali discovers a computer disc with poems written by her father. The intimate nature of this causes the sisters to believe that their father is having an affair. This family will test just how strong their bonds are as they’re forced to confront a series of uncomfortable truths about themselves and each other.

The screenplay for Landline, which Robespierre co-wrote with Elizabeth Holm (from a story by Robespierre, Holm, and Tom Bean) struggles to keep track of all the different threads dangling around the story. It’s unfocused on its characters, and tries to cram so much information about each and every one of these characters into a tight 90-minute package. Here’s a movie that wants to dance between family drama, relationship drama, a coming of age story, and all with comedic overtones. And yet it never fully meshes together, more or less bouncing between these aspects without much rhyme or reason.

Adding to the underwhelming nature of Landline is the decision to set the movie in 1995, which seems like a decision made only to deprive all the characters of the instant connectivity of cell phones in the hopes of amplifying the drama. Maybe the ‘90s just lacked a lot of personality, because none of the setting adds much to the film. There’s a point where you just think that maybe it’s all set in the ‘90s so there can be a throwaway gag about rollerblades.

There’s no denying, though, that Gillian Robespierre has assembled a great cast and they do their best with the material presented. Jenny Slate continues her meteoric rise and gives another heartfelt performance that is often undermined by the scatterbrained scripting. Abby Quinn does a fine job as the younger sister, though her attempts to convincing act like she knows how to smoke a cigarette leave a lot to be desired. It’s really Edie Falco and John Turturro that anchor Landline, and really wish the movie focused on these two fantastic actors and their characters’ struggles to maintain a marriage when the fire of love has been extinguished.

Gillian Robespierre has hit the sophomore slump with her second feature, but that’s not a reason for concern in regards to the future of her filmmaking career. This is still a smart writer-director that is daring to dive into deeply touchy and personal issues rarely seen on the screen. But Landline just dangles off the hook for most of its running time. I was hoping for so much more than a dial tone.

Landline
  • Overall Score
2.5

Summary

A mix of comedy and drama that can never get past its scatterbrained assemblage, Landline boasts an impressive cast but represents a sophomore slump for director Gillian Robespierre.

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