Landline (2017)

93 min. Director: Gillian Robespierre. Cast: Jay Duplass, Abby Quinn, Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, John Turturro.

Beginning at the end of Labor Day Weekend 1995, the comedy Landline quickly packs its characters into a car for the ride home from a family country house. A singalong to Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” hints at the trouble ahead, when elder daughter Dana mishears the lyric “Bring me a higher love” as “Break me a higher love.” Her babbled explanation of how love needs to break someone in a way prophesies the road ahead, with its roadblocks and detours to romantic and familial harmony.

Dana is played by the great Jenny Slate, who also starred in co-writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child. Slate cements her status as a kind of later-day Lucille Ball, gifted in physical comedy and possessed of a dithering combination of smarts and free-flowing emotion. Dana’s fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass) may just be her soulmate, but a crisis of faith sets in, leaving her vulnerable to the overtures of her old friend Nate (Finn Wittrock). Meanwhile, Dana’s teen sister Ali (Abby Quinn) kicks it with her first boyfriend (Marquis Rodriguez). She’s prone to acting out, which only intensifies when she finds evidence that her father Alan (John Turturro) is cheating on her mother Pat (Edie Falco). Naturally, this news also makes Dana’s feet considerably colder. Is this her future? Is monogamy even possible, or is long-term love doomed to fail?

In broad terms, Landline tells a familiar story (or stories) in a conventional way. But Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm get plenty right in the details. For starters, she has fun revisiting the 1990s, without indulging nostalgia. How quickly we forget pay phones, disk drives, and mix tapes as elements of daily life. Pop culture peppers the characters’ conversations in a realistic way, from Hilary Clinton’s pink suit to Lorena Bobbitt’s way of the knife and Helen Hunt’s apparent cameltoe on the once-upon-a-time Must-See-TV sitcom Mad About You.

Landline can feel like a sitcom, as well, but wackiness is kept to a minimum (the exception that proves the rule: a brief appearance by a woman named Table, who’s taken a vow of silence), and the script deftly avoids certain pitfalls, like turning Ben into a sad sack who’s obviously not good enough for our hero (a.k.a. the “Ralph Bellamy”) or painting Alan as an irredeemable jerk. Instead, Landline evinces a consistent curiosity about women’s life choices and their understandable fears of what’s really going through men’s minds. Believable characters, relationships, and dialogue go a long way to making the film a consistently enjoyable ride. Ultimately, the characters of Landline must ground themselves in whom to trust and how much, from the family we can’t choose to the person we can.