‘Landline’ sends a loud, insistent busy signal

Why Landline is set in the nineties is a question that Gillian Robespierre leaves unanswered as the end credits roll. Nostalgia for eyebrow rings, the Breeders, phone booths, and Macintoshes that look like tool boxes couldn’t have been it. Perhaps she recognized the dawn  of a new kind of forthright woman in American pictures, equal parts Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda. The best reason to watch it is Jenny Slate, who should by now be starring in every studio-released romantic comedy.Otherwise this fitfully amusing comedy examines the familiar cycles of infidelity and forgiveness, hobbled by a side plot too many.

The second reason to watch Landline is to savor the chemistry between Slate and Abby Quinn. As Ali, the rebellious seventeen-year-old sister of Slate’s Dana, Quinn has a cutting, jabbing presence that keeps the cast on its toes. As well they might. It’s fall 1995 in Manhattan,”Must-See TV” rules, and the Jacobs family teeters like most between keeping an uncomfortable status quo and facing the rot. Alan (John Turturro) gets little support from wife Pat (Edie Falco) when the copy writer announces he’s writing a play; worse, for the sake of a witty retort Pat announces at the dinner table that she thinks he’s a failure, period. College-aged Dana has boy troubles of her own, or, rather, sex trouble — she and fiancé Ben (Jay Duplas) remain in love but find physical intimacy with each other less interesting even when screwing in the woods, which inspires a shower scene where the game Ben suggests peeing on her poison ivy rash. But don’t think he takes risks: Several arguments ensue over his inability to say “pussy” aloud. Then Dana reacquaints herself with a plateful of prime rib, a dude who crushed on her in college; this triggers a torrid affair and the usual conflation of love and desire.

It’s with such dollops of cuteness that Landline stuffs itself. These bits and an arch, do-you-see approach to depicting the not-s0-long-ago often make Robespierre’s movie a discomfiting experience. “Ben and I spent three hours at Blockbuster and got Curly Sue,” Dana’s confesses to a co-worker early in the film. This material has to compete with scenes in which Ali and a friend snort heroin, which are in turn juxtaposed against theoretically harrowing trips to buy drugs that tonally play like Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt visiting a laundrymat. As Alan, Turturro’s part amounts to a wisecracking walk-on, with bits of pathos stuck in like nuts on a cake. Edie Falco, reprising notes she hit as Carmela Soprano, fares better, especially at a bar party where she does a most convincing imitation of a woman in her late forties feeling the rust as she dances to Donna Summer’s “Dim All the Lights.”

To dislike Landline is to risk looking like a churl, but, as as a man who thinks the sharpest insights come sheathed in jokes, I’m disappointed by the insistence with which Robespierrre backs away from troublesome situations; it’s as if she’s afraid of hurting her characters. 2014’s Obvious Child had similar problems. But women writing and directing movies gets so few chances that I don’t want to overstate the failures, not when Jenny Slate’s around for crucial support. They better make sure Abby Quinn’s got their backs too.

GRADE:  C+

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