'Landline' Review: Indie 1990s Dramedy About Dysfunctional Family Falls Short

'Obvious Child' duo returns with story of neurotic New York family – and gets hit with the curse of the sophomore slump

'Landline' fills its dysfunctional-family drama with choice '90s nostalgia – but Peter Travers thinks the 'Obvious Child' duo's hit a sophomore slump. Credit: Amazon Studios

Talk about a hard act to follow: Landline brings together the same sublime actress (Jenny Slate) and filmmaker (Gillian Robespierre) who put a sting in the tail of every joke in Obvious Child, their 2014 romcom about abortion. OK, their movie about a stand-up comedian negotiating the pitfalls of 21st-century romance dug deeper than that pithy description – and the duo's follow-up also offers far more than meets the eye. But there's something missing that’s hard to pin down.

Set long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away – that would be a Manhattan without smartphones circa 1995 – Landline extends its reach to a larger family unit. Slate plays Dana, the graphic designer daughter of the urbane Jacobs family that includes dad Alan (John Turturro), an ad copywriter who yearns to be a playwright, and mom Pat (Edie Falco), a business power player who takes no prisoners. There's also a younger offspring, Ali (Abby Quinn, sensational), a high school senior who's experimenting with heroin and sex with a classmate (Dylan Prince). No strings for Ali; Dana, however, is tied up with her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass), until she starts getting cozy with her old college crush Nate (Finn Wittrock) during a screening of – get this – a Nazi documentary. (Shades of Jerry and Elaine at Schindler's List!) Oh, there's also the matter of erotic poetry found on dad's computer and directed at a mystery woman so intriguing that the daughters start stalking the old man. It's a dysfunctional family powder keg, primed and ready to blow.

And blow it does. Sparks fly in some story turns; other plot points land with a thud. Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm definitely get the period details right, from the music to the era's raunchy slang. It helps, of course,  that the actors are spot-on terrific: Slate does wry and naughty like nobody’s business, and her byplay with Quinn is an unalloyed pleasure. Plus, watching Turturro spar with Falco is its own rich reward.

But Landline never finds its emotional footing. Amid all the shouting – and these folks really go at it – there's a void where a soulful core should be. The movie eventually drifts into sitcom clichés, when there's tons of talk about pain but little of the actual hurt. As they proved with Obvious Child, Robespierre and Slate are better than that. I'm thinking (hoping) they will find their old groove again.