Infidelity goes off the hook in Landline 

Set in Manhattan in 1995, the comedy/drama Landline embodies a time of alternative music and few cellphones, when it was still possible to just go off the grid and chill out for a few days. If you weren't there to witness the era yourself, surely you've heard stories: If you called someone at home and they weren't there, you had to leave a message with whomever answered. Women wore crushed velvet bodysuits. Payphones were everywhere, and they worked.

You may be thinking this sounds like a slight, if not gimmicky premise for a feature-length film, which is understandable, but you'd be wrong. The period stuff in Landline isn't the main event. Rather, it exists unobtrusively in the background. Rotary telephones are the salt around the rim of a margarita already rich with moving characters who navigate complex relationships with humor, love and humility.

Landline stars Jenny Slate as Dana, a 30-something woman who's engaged to be married to Ben (Jay Duplass). They've been together for forever (six years!) and the impending totality of even more forever makes Dana increasingly restless. Meanwhile, Dana's teenage sister Ali (Abby Quinn) embodies the classic '90s misanthrope. She sounds like Mazzy Star on the guitar, does drugs and doesn't want anything serious with her sincere, doting boyfriend. Finally, we have the girls' long married parents Pat and Alan, played by Edie Falco and John Turturro.

The drama arrives when Ali stumbles on CD-ROM-supported evidence that their frumpy father may be cheating, which launches the sisters into a full-fledged investigation. The plot sounds stupid on paper, but don't get hung up on the particulars. Manhattan Murder Mystery isn't about the murder: It just gets Diane Keaton and Woody Allen out of the house and talking through new adventures—it's a tool to reinvigorate their marriage. In Landline, Alan's potential infidelity jostles this family in weird and unexpected ways. The girls' sleuthing brings them closer as sisters, but maybe fuels some of their baser, more self-destructive impulses. And just how much does their mother know?

click to enlarge Jenny Slate, right, stars in Landline.
  • Jenny Slate, right, stars in Landline.

At its heart, Landline is a story about infidelity, approached from two generations of relationships. For Dana, the temptation to throw away her upcoming marriage comes from an old college buddy named Nate (Finn Wittrock), whose cool demeanor stands in stark contrast to her loyal, quirky, predictable fiancé. Nate thinks monogamy is boring and unrealistic, and he says so with a perfect 1990s head of chestnut brown hair—you know, the kind that's parted down the middle and falls sexily into his eyes when he confidently espouses bad life advice.

Gillian Robespierre writes and directs the picture, along with co-writer Elizabeth Holm. This is Robespierre's second feature collaboration with Slate after 2014's Obvious Child. Landline works primarily because the ensemble cast radiates authenticity. Standout performances include relative newcomer Quinn as the younger sister who's destined and doomed to be more mature and composed than her older sister, if she can just make it out of high school in one piece. Falco and Turturro are perfect as ever as the tired, put-upon parents. And Duplass seems at first like a consummate dope, but it just seems that way.

I love this movie most of all because of its career-defining performance by Slate. Her work here reminds me of Tom Hanks from '80s comedies. Both actors have a levity and warmth that brings their scenes to life. We watch helplessly as her character does everything wrong, but still, she manages to charm us with unflappable sincerity. Landline is sharp, funny and surprisingly wise.

Landline opens at the Roxy Fri., Sept. 1.

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