There’s an eye-popping scene in the new film “Landline” when our heroine is walking around New York City and decides to check her phone messages.
So get this: She walks over to some weird curbside contraption, puts in a quarter and lifts a black plastic receiver to her ear. It gets weirder: She has to listen to each message on some sort of home-based bizarre recording machine.
For audiences of a certain age, that scene in this sweetly bittersweet drama perfectly captures the pre-cellphone, pre-Facebook era of the mid-1990s. We actually had to find pay phones and wait hours for our calls to get answered. What we did in the meantime told you something about us.
Technology back then may have been slow and adorably primitive but “Landline” proves personal relationships were just as messy and complicated. The film might be set in 1995 but the issues it raises are always current: how hard it is to keep families together, holding onto love, forgiveness and sisterhood. It’s a rom-com, but everywhere love seems to be crumbling.
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“Landline” reunites much of the team behind 2014’s strong pregnancy comedy “Obvious Child”: actress Jenny Slate, director and co-writer Gillian Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm. It’s tart, sad, honest, funny, unsentimental and yet very sentimental. Hey, what can we say? The 1990s were weird. (Remember “The Macarena”?)
At the core of this film is three women at different stages of life confronting fidelity, with Slate playing a suddenly hesitant fiancee, her mother (Edie Falco, superb) simmering in what seems a broken marriage, and a rebellious younger daughter (played beautifully by Abby Quinn) unsure how to make lasting ties with people.
“I’m flailing,” Slate’s character confesses at one point, and everyone onscreen can relate. “I’m just trying to figure out if the life that I’ve pick out for myself is even the one that I want.”
The two main men in the movie — John Turturro as Falco’s unhappy husband, who may be cheating, and Jay Duplass as the bewildered fiance — are somewhat underwritten (how refreshing). It’s the trio of women at the film’s heart who keep the action going, unhappy with their meager life options, trying to overcome miscommunication and excited to find their own voices.
Slate proves again to be a special talent, able to go from goofy-silly to volcanically desirous in the time it takes to gulp a Zima. Falco makes every minute of her small screen time sizzle, and Quinn has great skill as a preternaturally mature teen.
“Landline” is also a delightful reminder of our past: baggy jeans, “Mad About You” jokes, rollerblades, fuzzy toilet seat covers, floppy disks, trenchcoats and the sounds of a whirring dot-matrix printer and a 10,000 Maniacs song on a stereo. Hillary Clinton delivering a speech in the background of a scene on a decidedly non-high-def TV reminds us how far — and yet how not far — we’ve come.
There are moments when the filmmakers seem a little too keen on playing up the nostalgia factor — there’s an intimate scene interrupted by a skipping CD player — but it’s clear 1995 was picked because that was still a time when technology hadn’t yet drowned us in instant communication or so completely intruded into our lives. We could still breathe a little 20 years ago.
That’s also reflected in the film’s gentle, unhurried pacing and high attention to detail, both of which lend it authenticity. There’s a lot of sex — some of it passionate, some not at all — and a liberal use of drugs. But nothing is glamorized, no one is exploited and, get this, no phones yet fit in a purse.
(At the Tivoli.)
Rated R for sexual content, language and drug use.