With her cracked-black-pepper voice, elastic features and astonishing willingness to go there, Jenny Slate may be the closest thing her generation has to its own Lucille Ball. She’s bawdier, for sure; as she proved in her breakout feature, the 2014 rom-com “Obvious Child,” she utterly refuses to observe the traditional niceties, whether she’s making off-color jokes about abortion or airing dirty laundry in the most unsavory sense of that term.
In “Landline,” she works again with Gillian Robespierre, who directed “Obvious Child” and, as in that film, wrote the script with Elisabeth Holm. In this New York-set dramatic comedy, the subject matter isn’t quite so incendiary. Here, Slate plays the good girl, a smart young woman named Dana who’s engaged to a mensch (Jay Duplass) and holding down a reasonably good job at Paper magazine. It’s Dana’s little sister, Ali (Abby Quinn), who’s the problem child: a teenager dabbling in petty crimes, misdemeanors and sexual exploration while living at home with her emotionally estranged parents. (The movie is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
That dysfunctional couple is played by Edie Falco and John Turturro in performances that find both brittle humor and wistful pathos in the attenuation that bedevils a once-edgy couple who used to snort coke and attend night court — “to watch the hookers and pimps get arraigned” — but who have now settled, in all the wrong ways. “Landline” isn’t about a miserable family as much as it’s about miserable individuals who are stuck with one another, unwilling to tell each other the truth, but unable to find anyone else who could possibly understand it.
When a certain character discovers that someone else is having an affair, “Landline” turns into a whodunit — or, more accurately, a who’s-doing-it. As a wry chamber piece of unspoken secrets, lies and betrayals, this comedy of sharp-elbowed manners shares cinematic space with the tartly observant films of Woody Allen and Nicole Holofcener. In fact, it would all seem a little derivative, were it not for the fact that Robespierre has set the story in 1995, lending it period details large and small that are sure to send certain audiences into raptures of ironic nostalgia. With its dot-matrix printers, Blockbuster Video stores, working pay phones and references to “Mad About You” and book clubs, “Landline” presents the audience with a moving diorama of a long-lost Island of Manhattan, whose denizens once walked upright, instead of curving their faces downward into tiny self-isolating screens.
“Landline” eventually takes on the larky but wrenching contours of a story about children growing up way too soon and adults losing their most cherished illusions. Slate and Quinn are completely believable as sisters who occupy a space between twinlike closeness and alienation. Their characters often grate at the audience as much as they do each other, but their lack of self-awareness, even at its most repellent, is part of the film’s message: that ultimately, we can never really know someone else, even when we’re living on top of them in a snapping, grouchy puppy pile.
Slate isn’t the star of “Landline,” but her daffy, unpredictable presence keeps it fizzing while her co-stars, especially Quinn, deliver brave, nervy performances. (Finn Wittrock, in a supporting role, is less convincing.) “Landline” offers viewers a rueful glimpse of a vanished time and place. Along the way, it’s often unexpectedly and guffawingly funny, especially when Robespierre cuts from a televised Hillary Clinton speech to Falco wearing an identical pink suit a few days later. Those were the days, my friend. And now nothing’s the same.
R. At area theaters. Contains sexuality, obscenity and drug use. 96 minutes.