' ' Cinema Romantico: The Land of Steady Habits

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Land of Steady Habits

Among several Connecticut state nicknames, “The Land of Steady Habits” is, it seems, open to several interpretations, some ironic, some sincere. As the title for her Netflix released film, mirroring the moniker of Ted Thompson’s book on which it is based, director Nicole Holofcener sees these steady habits less as any kind of politics or piety than consequences of suburban stasis – you know, commuting, big box shopping, and self-medicating stemming directly from the first two. It is these habits that Anders Hill (Ben Mendelsohn) both willingly and reluctantly accrues, moving into a condo in upscale suburban Connecticut after leaving his finance job for vague reasons and abandoning his marriage to Helene (Edie Falco) for ridiculous reasons he later articulates with a rueful laugh. Ostensibly he’s suffering a mid-life crisis, though he suffers it, frankly, less than meanders through it, like a guy trying it on for size. Indeed, that’s what Anders seems to be doing in the opening scene set conspicuously inside a Bed, Bath & Beyond, where he stands before several bright white shelves of towels before backing up and turning right as the camera pulls back, leaving him to confront a second, barely different bright white shelf of towels stretching beyond the purview of the camera, like a modern-day Tower of Babel, confusing everyone below.

This sort of suburban ennui is not new to film, of course, but Holofcener refrains from skewering it, evoked in a scene where Anders winds up in bed with Barbara (Connie Britton), a woman he’s sort of started seeing, and notices a self-help book on her nightstand titled Live Your Best Life Today that he can’t help but mock. Upon doing so, however, Barbara, refreshingly allowed self-possession, Holofcener’s female characters always are, she puts him in his place, illustrating how “The Land of Steady Habits” accepts this life languor and attempts to deal with it at face value, turning a potentially smug moment upside down. It also, however, lays bare Ander’s penchant for saying the wrong thing, not out of malice and not out of obliviousness but some sort of nonchalant defeatism that seems to leave him emotionally numb.

This is not to excuse the character, and Mendelsohn does not excuse him, improbably playing the part as if he’s standing outside of himself, seeing his own behavior in real time and just shrugging. When he’s in conversations, he can’t wait to get out of them, brazenly flouting eye contact, even in his first date with Barbara where he sits at the table looking left and right as if in hopes someone else will bail him out of talking. Not that he’d want to talk to that person either. At a Christmas party, in explaining why he retired from his job, he leaves the room even as he’s still talking, not trailing off but just disappearing, pulling the plug even as he’s still going. If moments like this make it hard to believe such an evasive mumble-mouth was ever a Wall Street mover and shaker, one moment shows you the old Anders, where, still paying the mortgage on Helene’s home, he refuses to sell to his ex-wife’s fiancé even though he can no longer afford it. Mendelsohn hones his gaze and his smile virtually sprouts fangs in declining the deal, a convincing show of macho force.

In another movie, this detail might have been the narrative bomb, set to detonate at just the right moment. Instead it gets diffused rather quietly, less about any kind of narrative payoff than an evocation of the way in which all the characters, like Anders walking out on his wife only to keep insinuating his way back into her orbit, are tied to one another whether they like it or not, and often in unique ways. Anders’s son, Preston (Thomas Mann), out of college and struggling to shift into gear for the next stage of his life, is given the cold shoulder by his parents as a means to teach him a lesson only to find help from his mom’s best friend. His mom’s best friend’s son Charlie (Charlie Tahan), meanwhile, gives his parents the cold shoulder, leaning on Anders instead, the two unlikely kindred souls suggesting a slacker version of the relationship of Julia-Louis Dreyfus and Tavi Gevinson from Holofcener’s “Enough Said.”

Both Preston and Charlie exist as reflections of Anders, and in their agreeably dueling drollness, the performances of Mann and Tahan support this very idea, their respective characters meet harsh life complications with something like a shrug. Neither character’s storyline, however, quite comes home. Preston’s drinking problem is more a contrivance, highlighted by his taking a job as liquor deliveryman, which fails to elevate the pointedness of that joke in any meaningful way. Charlie, meanwhile, suffers a grave fate that feels less his own than a catharsis, of sorts, for Anders, brought home in a Christmas Eve dinner where relative to what happened the argument and mini-brawl feel, frankly, pat. So does the epilogue, which tries to both tie a bow on things and leave it open, leaving the movie a little at loggerheads, approximating Anders in a way, backing out of the room and making a clean getaway even as it is still going.

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