★★★ / ★★★★
There is a scene toward the end of the film that perfectly showcases the effects of the many events we have seen. Indirectly, a boy asks a girl if they should officially label themselves boyfriend and girlfriend. Even though it is apparent they both really like one another, the girl insists that they remain friends. To the boy, even though the girl gave a reason for her refusal, the reasoning behind the reason isn’t exactly clear. It sounds like a lame excuse. But because we are witnesses to her recent experiences, it is crystal clear to us. The story is complete.
Based on the screenplay by Elisabeth Holm and Gillian Robespierre, directed by the latter, “Landline” is a perceptive picture about infidelity and how it threatens to derail family bonds. Although a comedy with a rather familiar template involving the children finding out that one of their parents has had or is having an affair, the material rises above the template because the moments of honesty are painful, real, and relatable. Those who have been betrayed one way or another will be able to look into the characters’ eyes and understand precisely what they are going though. The picture commands quiet power.
Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn play the elder and younger sister, respectively. Although the siblings have opposite personalities, the performers are able to build a rapport not through words written on the script but through minute gestures, how Dana sits just so right next to Ali (sometimes to annoy her) or how Ali gives a certain look imploring Dana to stop talking immediately (because one or both of them may get in trouble). We believe they are sisters not only because they look alike from certain angles but also due to the fact that Slate and Quinn are able to capture the essence of what being siblings mean. When the sisters function on the same wavelength, they are very funny together. And when they do not, we still acknowledge the comedic situation yet we are also reminded that although they are sisters, they are individuals first. The film is surprisingly intelligent at times.
The story takes place in ‘90s New York City. Although the setting is not crucial to the plot, since the story is about family first rather than where the family lives in whichever era, some of the amusing moments involve old school computers, having to use a payphone, and brightly colored power suits. To make the work stronger, I felt the screenwriters ought to have found a way to incorporate these nostalgic items to each family member’s idea of traditionalism—what it means to them as a unit, individually, and moving forward.
Mainstream comedies tend to end with a neat bow designed to make the audience feel good. “Landline” is different in that it wears its scars like badges of honor. I enjoyed that subtle communication of strength. In the beginning, the vase is unscratched, untainted in any way. Somewhere in the middle a discovery of infidelity smashes the vase into pieces. By the end, the vase is cobbled together with superglue but the imperfections are readily apparent.