The last we heard from the twosome of director Gillian Robespierre and her star/BFF Jenny Slate was with “Obvious Child” (2014), an endearingly sloppy indie comedy about a girl, her family, her friends, and her abortion. It wasn’t a classic, but it was a good, tender-tough night at the movies, and it promised better things.
“Landline” is not one of those things, but neither is it a sophomore disaster. It’s just another wry New York family-dysfunction farce, with a stronger supporting cast and (slightly) better production values than Robespierre’s first film but also a propensity for playing it safe and dulling the pain just when the pain should be sharpest.
The family in question consists of Ali (Abby Quinn), 17, still living at home, and furious at everything; her mother, Pat (Edie Falco of “Nurse Jackie” and “The Sopranos”), and father, Alan (John Turturro), locked into a bad cop-good cop routine that’s hell on their marriage; and Ali’s older sister Dana (Slate), an editor at Paper magazine who’s living with her fiance, a good-natured jellyfish named Ben (Jay Duplass of “Transparent”).
Ali, who has a raver alterna-life of which her parents remain clueless, discovers that her father, a frustrated playwright, may be cheating with a mysterious woman he calls “C.” Dana, meanwhile, is panicking at the prospect of wedded boredom and drawn to a handsome, feckless friend (Finn Wittrock) from her college bad-girl days. So the film’s chessboard is set up for a seriocomic treatise on cheating, with Ali, the youngest and most trenchantly cynical also the one who’s most easily shocked.
I wish I could say “Landline” pulled itself together into an incisive human comedy, but it’s mostly merely cute on a scene-by-scene basis. The easy interplay between the two younger actresses casts some light on the complexities of sisterhood, and Quinn fumes beguilingly throughout — you want to see more of her. (Slate, by contrast, lets giggles and nervous mannerisms nearly overwhelm her performance.)
No surprise, the grown-ups are even better, and “Landline” only truly draws blood in its portrait of a marriage seething with buried resentments, where dealing with a hostile teenager only widens the stress fractures that were there to begin with. Turturro gets both the father’s pride and his weakness, and there’s a scene in which Falco’s character says the hell with it and goes to a singles bar that I wish the filmmaker had had the nerve to follow through.
Furthermore, the movie’s set in 1995 for no probable reason other than that’s when Robespierre was 17, the age of the rebellious younger sister. Write what you know, I suppose, but the ticking off of various pop culture fads and effluvia — floppy discs! phone booths! CD stores! jokes about Lorena Bobbitt and “Mad About You”! — seems less integrated into the onscreen drama than spackled on top like frosting.
Still, it’s good to be reminded that songs like the Breeders’ “Drivin’ on 9” exist, and there are enough laughs and touching moments to get you to the end unscathed along with the characters. “Landline” is a very nice movie about the ways people can be not nice to each other at all, and it never quite overcomes its innate passive aggressiveness.
Directed by Gillian Robespierre. Written by Robespierre, Elisabeth Holm, and Tom Bean. Starring Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, Edie Falco, John Turturro, Jay Duplass. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 93 minutes. R (sexual content, language, drug use).