The Land of Steady Habits (2018) Film Review

Flickfeast and Chill

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Directors as modest as Nicole Holofcener are far and few between. Her character dramas are about adults for adults, with top quality casts and medium-sized budgets. The Land of Steady Habits, her latest drama in five years, sees the auteur of contemporary suburban alienation return, turning from depicting a woman in the middle of a mid-life reappraisal to a man going through a similar sense of middle-aged dislocation.

Based on the novel by Ted Thompson, The Land of Steady Habits stars Ben Mendelsohn as Anders Harris, who has left his wife of 36 years and his lucrative job in finance in favour of early retirement and finding himself again. But it isn’t going very well. He may be good at picking up similarly-aged women in the supermarket, but – in a classic signifier of weakened male character – he can’t get it up. Likewise he is estranged from his layabout son Preston (Thomas Mann) and his perennially disappointed ex-wife Helene (Edie Falco), who to his chagrin, is already dating another man. Smartly starting after his big life decision, we are dropped into his life without ceremony and invited to observe for the next 100 minutes.

Taking out the kind of perfunctory scenes that would provide filler in other dramas, Holofcener trusts the viewer to understand that other things happen when we aren’t watching. This gives her characters the ring of authenticity, allowing us to imagine them living their lives apart from us. The other result of this is a lack of urgency in the narrative, with plot always the bridesmaid to incident and character observation. And there is a lot of small, touching moments, most notably the unorthodox friendship Harris strikes up with the local drug addict Charlie.

Charlie is the perhaps the only strange thing in the film’s unremarkable, soul-sucking Connecticut setting. Everyone lives in almost-identical houses, there’s a local strip club, a three-storey Gap and, like a lot of the USA, you have to use a car in order to get anywhere. In essence, its generic America, Holofcener using the trappings of dull McMansions and characterless shops to stress the ennui of her stilted suburban characters. Harris and Charlie’s relationship forms the crux of the film, the latter’s interest in Russian space navigation providing a much-needed escape from reality for the both of them.

Sandwiched in-between recent villainous turns in Ready Player One and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and upcoming villainous turns in Robin Hood and Captain Marvel, Ben Mendelsohn actually has something to really dig into here. Anders Harris feels like a real person. It’s not a showy performance, but one that drips with awkward sarcasm, low-key sadness and a real sense of insecurity. Instead of performing big moments other films might deem necessary of a mid-life crisis, Harris merely fumbles his way through social engagements, dating and being a responsible-role model.  But as this is a small town, and everything he does creates a small ripple-effect throughout the local community, resulting in some quietly affecting and cleverly reached character realisations.

Nonetheless, the movie is unsure whether to commit to its central character drama — depicting Anders’ figuring out his life again — or allow its central conceit to inspire true change in other characters. With such a fine supporting cast, The Land of Steady Habits definitely have been longer; allowing us to see more of Preston trying to make something of himself, or Helene rebuilding her own life with a new man. Instead the supporting details, small as they are, distract from the central thrust of the story. Holofcener may have a knack for creating conventional set-ups and then defusing them in unorthodox ways, but The Land of Steady Habits still can’t seem to bring all its threads together in a satisfying way. The structure and style of the film thus feels a little like a smokescreen for its undeveloped finale. This is disappointing considering the roundness of the cast, especially the exemplary Mendelsohn.

Yet, with the film’s distribution being handled by Netflix, this will undoubtably reveal Holofcener’s mature dramas to a wider audience. Perhaps they will pick up the production next time and it won’t be a full five years before her next film comes out. There’s an obvious hole in the market.

DIRECTOR: Nicole Holofcener
STARS: Ben Mendelsohn, Thomas Mann, Edie Falco
RUNTIME:98 minutes
COUNTRY: United States

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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