Review: '90s-set cheating dramedy 'Landline' neither phat nor wack

Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn

Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The name Landline suggests both a period piece and some crucial plot element revolving around traditional home phone services, but oddly enough this movie is only the former—a time capsule from 1995 that focuses on unfaithfulness while casually reminding us how much pay phones and going to the store to buy CDs sucked.

Landline explores the infidelities perpetrated by two members of the Jacobs family and the repercussions felt by the Jacobses as a whole. Engaged-to-be-married Dana (Jenny Slate) runs into an old college flame (Finn Wittrock) at a party, and a second-chance encounter at the record store leads to an affair. At the same time, younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn)—a cursing, drinking, drug-using high schooler—stumbles upon a floppy disk containing her copywriter father’s (John Turturro) love poems to a mysterious C, and teams up with Dana to find out C’s identity.

Through their limited sleuthing, Dana and Ali begin to develop a strong sisterly bond that’s complicated by Dana’s fling and Abby’s own uncertain romantic relationship.

In a cast featuring Slate, Turturro, and Edie Falco, it’s Abby Quinn who steals the show. She makes a convincing disaffected high schooler, but also readily handles more mature issues as her precocious and wild character struggles with drug use, her father’s infidelity, and the inevitable heartstring tugs that proceed the vast unknown of the college experience. Ali’s at an age where she’s discovering who she is, along with her family’s cheating ways. As much as the plot rolls because of Dana and their father, it’s Abby who is most affected by her relatives’ unfaithfulness.

Landline features strong performances, but ultimately feels too by-the-numbers. Were it not for the temporal setting, there wouldn’t be much distinguishing this movie from any other cheating dramedy. Here there are two instances, sure, but both play out pretty much as you’d expect. It’s clever at times, but there are certainly no surprises here.

There also seems to be a missed opportunity to leverage the era’s difficulties. The movie’s poster reads, “1995. When people were harder to reach,” which is meant to be witty marketing double entendre, but in execution, the characters don’t have any trouble at all reaching each other. In fact, they bump into one another with surprising ease given the New York City setting. And there’s nothing about the plot at its core that feels inextricably tied to the era. Nobody is overheard on the landline. Nobody loses another person because there are no cell phones. The floppy disk could have been a random folder on the family desktop, and we’re back in 2017.

Ultimately, if Landline were set today, it would probably be passed over as another indie take on a familiar storyline. That doesn’t justify transplanting it to the ’90s, though, it justifies a more novel approach.

Director: Gillian Robespierre
Starring: Jenny Slate, John Turturro, Finn Wittrock, Edie Falco, Jay Duplass, Abby Quinn
Rated: R
Theater: Edina Cinema, now playing