Film & Television

Landline: A Nostalgic Look at Unconnected Romance in the 90s

I have a little trouble feeling nostalgia for the 90s. After all, I was born in the 60s, was a child of the 70s, and a young adult of the 80s. By the time the 90s came along, I was doing tremendously grownup things. Like being promoted, getting married, buying a house, and having a child.

But even I have to admit that in the past twenty years, things have changed a lot — in fashion, politics, medicine, entertainment. The greatest evolution of all has to be how we communicate. In the 90s, there were still pay phones, answering machines, missed calls, and busy signals. Hardly anyone had a mobile phone. We didn’t know from “wireless.” Phones still had cords; they were called “landlines.”

It’s this now virtually antiquated piece of equipment that director Gillian Robespierre uses as the title for her new film. Set in 1995 New York City, the movie Landline examines how people connected, disconnected, and reconnected two decades ago. In many ways, it feels like a romantic comedy from that era (the city scenes are familiar and the quirky heroine would be almost comfortable in a Nora Ephron script). But, the movie doesn’t shy away from grittier real-life complications and adult language. Suffice it to say, Meg Ryan may have faked an orgasm in Katz’s delicatessen back when Harry met Sally, but her dialogue was decidedly less obscene. Consider yourself warned.

Landline tells the story of the Jacobs family, government policymaker Pat (Edie Falco), copywriter and aspiring playwright Alan (John Turturro), disgruntled teen Ali (Abby Quinn), and engaged older sister Dana (Jenny Slate). Although we hear that they were quite the couple back in the disco days, Pat and Alan have settled into a snide co-existence. He thinks she thinks he’s ineffectual. She resents having to be the bad cop when parenting is called for. Ali is acting out, experimenting with sex and drugs, cutting classes and sneaking out to clubs. Dana appears to have her act together; she’s engaged to the sweet if rather vanilla Ben (Jay Duplass), and works at a magazine.

Two events set the movie’s drama in motion. Ali discovers that her father is having an affair (she finds his oh-so-awkward love poetry to the mysterious “C” on a floppy disc, another technology throwback). And, Dana herself begins an affair with an old college classmate, the hunky if insincere Nate (Finn Witrock). Both sisters run away to the family’s country house to figure things out and decide to work together to save their parents’ marriage. And, in doing so, they help each other work out their own messes.

Landline is very much an ensemble piece, and the younger actresses have marvelous mentors in the always remarkable Falco and Turturro. Despite Alan’s infidelity, there isn’t a stock good guy or bad guy in their worn-out marriage. Both are tired; both have regrets. But, neither knows how to fix things. They fall into the same toxic pattern again and again. When Ali gets a B on a paper, Pat upbraids her and pushes her to do better. Alan steps in to keep the peace. “Most people learn from failure,” he says. Pat can’t help herself. “You would know,” she snaps. And Ali is pulled in as well. “No wonder he hates you!” she shouts as her mother exits. It doesn’t help that they live in such close quarters. (But, “Bravo!” to Robespierre for depicting a realistic New York apartment for a change.)

Another memorable, and less hostile, scene between Falco and Turturro takes place as Pat and Alan get ready for work. They quip back and forth as she applies makeup and he gets in a morning workout on a reclining bike. On the news, Hillary Clinton is delivering her inspiring “Women’s rights are human rights” speech in Beijing. She’s wearing a pink suit. “That’s a great suit,” Pat notes. “That is a great suit,” Alan agrees. In the very next scene, an emboldened Pat is speaking to her team in — you guessed it — a pink suit.

Pat’s wardrobe homage got a quiet laugh, as did many other moments of 90s-era schtick. Dana uses a pay phone to check — and uniformly ignore — her answering machine messages. Ben reads promotional copy for outrageous products from the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue. The sisters dress up as “California Raisins” for Halloween. Dana complains that she and Ben spent three hours in Blockbuster (and eventually chose Curly Sue), and later meets up with Nate in a record store. And there are off-color jokes at the expense of the earnest and now thoroughly dated series Mad About You, which was, of course, “Must See TV.” Robespierre, along with her co-writers Elisabeth Holm and Tom Bean, pepper the film with these small but significant references, making the movie an unlikely but legitimate period piece. The dialogue is very smart and often very funny.

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