‘Landline’: Amusing ’90s period piece strikes the right dial tone

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Jenny Slate (left) and Abby Quinn play sisters in “Landline.” | Amazon Studios

“I’m reading [the] Hammacher-Schlemmer [catalog]. They’re advertising the world’s fastest razor blade. … KGB surveillance binoculars, what? … Kitten tunnel! You can buy as many as you want and build your own kitten village.”Yes, “Landline” is set in the 1990s.

It’s not easy to warm up to the Jacobs family.

Sure, they’re all smart and quick-witted and interesting; they’re also loud and whiny and duplicitous, and sometimes just plain unpleasant to be around.

Not that any of us could relate to any of those shortcomings, right? Cough-cough.

Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline” is a sharp and knowing and sarcastic period piece — and yes, enough time has transpired to say a movie set in the mid-1990s is a period piece. The characters move about in a world where Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits are considered fashion-forward, Liz Phair is on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and singles-bar conversation includes lines such as, “What about you, do you watch a lot of ‘Must See TV’?”

They use pay phones to check the messages on their answering machines. They work on big clunky computers with big chunky files.

All of that is fun. (Plus, the lack of smart devices makes for situations that can’t be easily cleared up with a text message.) But it’s the characters and the comedy that carry the day in “Landline,” as we follow the misadventures of a middle-aged Manhattan couple Pat (Edie Falco) and Alan (John Turturro), their twentysomething daughter Dana (Jenny Slate) and their teenaged girl Ali (Abby Quinn).

The film opens with a scene of Dana and her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass) having sex in the woods. It’s about as erotic as having sex in the woods would be in real life, which is to say, not at all. Dana hits “Pause” when thinks she hears the pitter-patter of creatures’ feet, then she swats at bugs flittering about. The biggest takeaway from the romp is a case of poison ivy.

This sets the tone for the naturalistic, relatable personality of the film. Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm have a keen ear for the rhythms of dialogue and the way family members interact with one another, whether it’s the casual cruelty a teenage daughter can inflict upon her parents; how a longtime married couple can be in the same room with one another and yet seem a thousand miles apart, or the comfortable and sometimes terrifyingly dull routine of a young couple already long past the point of giddy romance and constant lust.

Dana gets cold feet about her engagement and finds an excuse to temporarily move back home. Abby’s experimentation with drugs is heading to a dark place. Their father, ostensibly the least likely candidate in New York to be having a torrid affair, is having a torrid affair. And Mom is just trying to hold it together while everything around her is crumbling apart.

Heavy stuff — but told for the most part with a light touch.

Jenny Slate (who was a shining light in Robespierre’s “Obvious Child”) is one of the best and most likable comedic actresses around. She’s wonderful here. Abby Quinn is so good as the smart, rebellious, sometimes nasty Ali, you’ll want to personally ground her for two weeks. Turturro and Falco — come on, it’s Turturro and Falco. They’re great. They’re almost always great.

“Landline” is a very funny film about people dealing with very serious situations. Better the Jacobs family than us.


Amazon Studios presents a film directed by Gillian Robespierre and written by Robespierre and Elizabeth Holm. Rated R (for sexual content, language and drug use). Running time: 96 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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