Jenny Slate’s opening monologue in Obvious Child is the kind of thing that weeds out the uptight among us. Its indecorous references to bodily emissions and the gunky realities of sex are meant to set up her character as a truth-telling stand-up comic, but also serve notice that the movie itself will take no prisoners when engaging taboos and uncomfortable subjects. Fair enough, as Obvious Child is a romantic comedy about abortion. But I also suspect that Obvious Child wants to keep pace with the tone of 21st-century comedy, an explicit style (usually R-rated, as in pictures like Neighbors and Baywatch) that puts sex and scatology at the crude center of the joke. It’s the comedy of poop and genitalia, the sort of thing that would send Wes Anderson to his fainting couch.
Slate and Obvious Child writer/director Gillian Robespierre have reunited for Landline, and while it’s a much less adventurous film than their first collaboration, the urge to be smutty is still in place. Landline has the outline and the setting of a middle-period Woody Allen picture, as the trials and tribulations of a brainy New York Jewish family provide fodder for bittersweet humor. It’s set in the mid-1990s, when Allen himself was still energized enough to produce movies such as Bullets Over Broadway and Deconstructing Harry. Robespierre understands that we’re ripe for a little nostalgia about the Clinton era. Setting the action before smart phones became endemic—the title conjures up a simpler time—can be a boon to storytelling.
Infidelity is the central subject in Landline. Two sisters, Dana (Slate) and Ali (Abby Quinn), discover that their father (John Turturro) has been drafting love poems to a mystery woman. The evidence is right there on floppy discs (the movie treats 20-year-old computer equipment with amused indulgence). Their mother (Edie Falco) appears unaware of this extramarital dalliance. Dana can hardly be a schoolmarm about this, because her own engagement to yuppie dishrag Ben (Jay Duplass) is threatened by an affair with an old friend (Finn Wittrock). Meanwhile, teenager Ali is acting out a variety of risky behaviors, although never in a way that seriously threatens the movie’s cozy view of everybody eventually getting along.
Turturro and Falco are gifted actors, and their pairing sounds promising because of their different modes: Turturro’s usual style is large and expansive, where Falco tends to offer fine-cut honesty. But they’re given little to play here beyond mid-life disappointment—his literary hopes, her domestic exhaustion. I wondered whether the script (by Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm) reaches for shock humor because the actual subject matter isn’t particularly fresh. The dirty bits occur in direct relation to how safe the material really is. In one scene, two characters have sex during a screening of a documentary about Nazi atrocities, which on the one hand is a cheeky way for a Jewish character to stick it to Hitler, and on the other a blunt tactic to get the audience to drop the popcorn. Let’s just say it lacks the complexity of the Seinfeld episode that investigated the propriety of making out during Schindler’s List.
Landline was a special presentation at SIFF earlier this year, and is poised to follow SIFF opener The Big Sick as an indie with breakout potential. Both films are distributed by Amazon Studios, which is demonstrating increasing savvy about how to pick ’em; Amazon’s 2016 summer releases included non-crowd-pleasers The Neon Demon and Wiener Dog, any random five minutes of which had more authentic shock value than the entirety of Landline. I laughed during Landline, and I still think Jenny Slate is a deft, new kind of comic actress. But the journey from the spikiness of Obvious Child to the softness of Landline is a disappointing arc, no matter how far this film might bring its creators into the mainstream.
Rated R. Opens Fri., July 28 at AMC Seattle 10.