Monday, September 24, 2018

Movie Review: The Land of Steady Habits

The Land of Steady Habits *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Nicole Holofcener.
Written by: Nicole Holofcener based on the novel by Ted Thompson.
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn (Anders Hill), Edie Falco (Helene), Thomas Mann (Preston), Charlie Tahan (Charlie), Elizabeth Marvel (Sophie), Connie Britton (Barbara), Bill Camp (Donny O’Connell), Josh Pais (Larry Eastwood), Michael Gaston (Mitchell Ashford), Victor Williams (Howard).
Anders (Ben Mendelsohn) is an affluent, white man in his 50s, who has essentially decided to chuck his old life, and start something new, and finds there isn’t anything much there either. He made good money in finance, but has now retired, and enjoys telling everyone he meets how soulless his old job was, and how miserable it made him – you can see the look in the eyes of those he tells that they don’t care, and want a way out of this conversation. He has divorced his wife, Helene (Edie Falco), and moved into a smaller house – while she has already moved on – to one of his former colleagues, Donny (Bill Camp). He has a strained relationship with his son, Preston (Thomas Mann), who is in his late 20s, has a good college degree, but no real job – owing, likely, to his drug addiction. Although he’s clean now, he still doesn’t have his act together. The saddest thing that Anders learns from doing all of this is that in every aspect of his life he was replaceable – life goes on for everyone around him, and whatever he thought he was going to find by himself, he hasn’t found it. He is charming enough to be able to talk women into bed, but once there, he cannot even perform anymore. The only person he connects with is Charlie (Charlie Tahan), the teenage son of some friends (really his ex-wife’s friends) – who is basically a teenage version of Preston, heading down the same drug addiction path, but unlike his own son, he likes Anders.
It would be easy to make Anders into an asshole. To be fair he is kind of an asshole anyway, but because of Mendelsohn’s performance, and a perceptive screenplay and direction by Nicole Holofcener, you still like Anders. He’s lost and unsure, and everything he does, he does with the best of intentions. He screws it all up, but he’s trying. Besides, it’s not like anyone else in the movie is all that much better than Anders. They all try, and screw-up as well, and in many ways, they use Anders as their excuse for things that have gone wrong for them.
As a filmmaker, Holofcener has always had an eye and ear for these types of characters – from Lovely and Amazing, to Friends with Money to Please Give and perhaps my favorite of her work, Enough Said – she has made films about mostly financially comfortable white people, going through some sort of crisis of, well, something. If you wanted to write them off as liberal white whining, you probably could – but I think she gets to something deeper in that sort of malaise, and finds some sort of humanity underneath them. Here, she is aided by a great cast – no one better than Mendelsohn, who was an inspired choice to play Anders. Mendelsohn is one of the great character actors working today, but often he’s playing slimy, sleazy characters – like his breakthrough in Animal Kingdom or his Emmy winning work in Bloodline, where he played the black sheep of the family. Yet, while on the surface his character there and here couldn’t be more different, underneath they are kind of similar. They are both charming – able to get people to like them, when perhaps they shouldn’t – and they both have good intentions more often than not, but they struggle with actually doing the right thing. It’s a great performance from Mendelsohn, that really keeps the film going as it drifts in its episodic structure. You cannot fault the rest of the cast either. Falco does great understated work as Helene, who has gotten her life back on track – perhaps a little too much so. Elizabeth Marvel is in fine form as her best friend, and mother to Charlie (someone needs to give Marvel a truly great role at this point, she’s always excellent), Connie Britton has some nice scenes as perhaps a new woman in Anders life – and both Mann and Tahan are good as essentially the same character at different ends of the same issue.
The film, by design, kind of drifts from one episode to the next – at least until the final act, when it appears like Holofcener wants to take things to a more dramatic level, and perhaps see how far she can push Anders and still keep him somewhat likable. That didn’t work quite as well as the setup, even as things get more dramatic. Somehow, I prefer the scenes where everyone seems to be on the verge of saying something awful, and don’t, to the scenes when they actually do. As a result, I’m not quite sure this is up to the same level of Holofcener’s other films. Yet, it’s still more perceptive, and deeply humane, than most of what we see. Even minor Holofcener is better than most indies in this mode.

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