Fun little niche that funnywoman Jenny Slate has carved out for herself in the movies.
The “SNL” alumna has been voted Hollywood’s Most Likely to Make a Bad Decision…by accident. In films such as the accidental pregnancy comedy “Obvious Child,” playing a schoolteacher who beds her gifted second grader’s guardian in “Gifted,” and now as Dana, an engaged woman who tumbles, out of fear, into an affair with an old beau in “Landline,” the perky/ethnic Slate is the vulnerable version of Aubrey Plaza.
Yeah, the libidinous Jewess stereotype lives on, mostly in indie films.
In “Landline,” we see how such a character might be created. It’s a nurture vs. nature argument that starts with smart, self-involved and indulgent parents — Italian (Edie Falco) and Jewish (John Turturro).
And the kicker is Dana’s younger sister, Ali, a teen trainwreck-in-progress played with insolent, defiant and peer-pressured abandon by Abby Quinn. She is every mistake Dana has made, squared and cubed. Seventeen, and she’s smoking, dabbling in sex, weed and absolutely willing to snort a little “H” when a peer pressures her to do just that.
“It’s like climbing back into the womb!”
Maybe that’s because with Dana long out of the house, living with her intended Ben (Jay Duplass), there’s nobody but Ali to see the strained marriage her parents cling to, to stumble across the floppy disc with copywriter-poet-playwright Dad’s love odes to a mysterious other woman — “C.”
There’s little reason for director and co-writer (with Elisabeth Holm) Gillian Robespierre to set the movie in 1995. But floppy discs, pay phones, CD stores, PJ Harvey on the radio and “Mad About You” and Hillary Clinton — in that famous pink pantsuit — on TV suggest filmmakers’ living out some bit of comfort-zone autobiography in this warped dramedy.
When we meet Dana, she’s attempting sex in the woods with Ben, checking off things on her single life bucket list (poison ivy is a bonus). There’s a hint of panic about her, as her future seems to promise little such excitement.
Ali, meanwhile, is sneaking out at night to clubs, dropping the ball at school and indulged by a father who refuses to rein her in.
“Most people learn from failure!” he kvetches.
“YOU should know,” judgmental wife Pat punches back.
The mystery of Dad’s affair, fear of the coming wedding and genuine sisterly concern — in that order– bring Dana home and hurls the siblings closer together. But when she’s distracted by an old beau (Finn Wittrock of “Winter’s Tale” and “Unbroken”), all that takes a back seat. One last fling time.
Through it all, Quinn’s Ali tests boundaries, takes stupid risks and all but cries out for attention and intervention. It’s an insightful character made real by a performance of flesh and blood, hormones and adrenaline.
“Landline” — Remember those? — meanders along on a pleasant buzz of the familiar and the somewhat funny. We can guess the trials these siblings will face, and extrapolate those into a finale anybody could see coming 45 minutes in advance.
Still, the odd stinging line reminds us that pigeon-holed or not, Slate is a veteran stand-up comic and can create her own laughs. Her crack about Helen Hunt’s tight pants in “Mad About You” will make for an awkward red carpet moment, someday.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, language and drug use
Cast: Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, Finn Wittrock, John Turturro
Credits:Directed by Gillian Robespierre , script by Elisabeth Holm and Gillian Robespierre. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:33