“It’s like a play within a play,” Nate (Finn Wittrock) observes halfway through “Landline.” He’s the clever, charming, and handsome interloper from Dana’s (Jennie Slate) past. He insinuates himself into the traditions of what she describes when she proclaims “We are a family of cheaters,” because she suspects her father of having an affair. And he’s not the only one: she herself drinks the Kool-Aid, betraying her fiancé, leaving only one task to Nate—closing the deal. That way, she is absolved of any and all responsibility. If we are honest with ourselves we know that given motive and opportunity, anyone subjected to Dana’s upbringing, when confronted with Nate’s soul-baring transparency would like her, fall from grace as if off a log—family traditions or not.
With the exception of Dana’s fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass), the other Landline characters are given to soul-baring lying. It’s a New York thing among a certain uncertain class of people, many of them carbon copies of the reluctant paterfamilias Alan (a now-myopic, now-caustic John Turturro), and his wife Patty (Edie Falco, cast once again as woman undone by rules of the game). The couple is Volvo-encumbered, and lives by the tenets of the “should.” (Should live in Manhattan, where kids should attend prestigious schools; should master the parlor game of clever repartee; should strive for the appearance of brutal honesty at any cost.)
Patty and Alan’s parenting style is doggedly libertine, even as they suffer in occasional silence the slings and arrows they prompt from their adolescent and adult offspring Ali and Dana. They are moral pragmatists and recognize that the advertised price they pay is low for settling for less than what their sense of entitlement proposes. Theirs is a market where demand is offset by a glut of supply. The actual price—well, that’s folded into the painful if predictable lessons that come when life lowers the boom. Though it’s a New York thing, its spawn travels beyond the Hudson, in the backpacks and duffle bags of expats who have settled or unsettled in LA, San Francisco, Berkeley, Seattle, Cambridge, Santa Fe, Ashville, and the like. You know they’re at the next table when proximity demands you bear witness to their glib trumpeted ambivalences.
The script slathers on 1990s ambience to the point of serial conceits, most of which summon up pay phones, message recorders, floppy disks, and New York hangouts with names like “Serendipity.” There’s the rogue nails-on-chalkboard anachronistic moment when Ali (Abby Quinn) tags a bar scene as “a real shit show.” In spite of these excesses, endearing moments find the sisters arguing, teasing, and rediscovering each other wrapped in the familiar mantle of rebellion that begs to be acknowledged. Dana dresses herself and Ali as raisins for a Halloween bacchanal. They don plastic trash bags as the shank of their costumes (Design: Elizabeth Vastola). Later, Ben meets up with them wearing a giant raisin box.
In a pivotal scene, Alan confesses that his inclination to stray issues from not knowing whether his life with Patty was the one he’d picked for himself, or worse, that he might never know the answer to that question. Ali wonders whether her father’s mistress “fills a void he created for himself.” The laser-trimmed script by Gillian Robespierre slices close to the quick, allowing each actor to turn in a chillingly or mesmerizingly faithful capture of his or her character.
The formula Hollywood ending is unconscionably cheesy. Everyone gathers at the family’s favorite restaurant for dinner. The soap opera theme cues up to signal that it’s time to root in your purse for your parking validation. The camera recedes as the now semi-reconciled if housebroken family members engage in patter that we hear only faintly. It reminds us that we’re outsiders, but reassures that they are now cohesive enough to return to being insiders. It’s the sad consolation prize. It registers that this once-reckless upper middle class nuclear family has succeeded in re-seating itself in an approximation of its former comfort zone, even as its rent has risen, forcing the forfeiture of the upgrade that each one of them was hoping to snag against all odds.