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Suburban malaise and its accompanying ennui are a common thread in many American family dramas. Often the realm of (mostly white) teenagers, shallow housewives and ineffectual middle-aged men, the genre has always been tinged with a privilege that, especially in today’s timeline of constant political upheaval, risks coming off as irrelevant or tone-deaf. The Land of Steady Habits, Nicole Holofcener’s latest film and first with Netflix as the distributor, mostly avoids this pitfall with a dark humor and directorial self-awareness. Its overall success, though, isn’t quite as fully-formed.
Holofcener acknowledges the overfamiliarity of the family drama with an omnipresent lens that hovers over her characters in a way that’s both empathetic and judgmental. Her protagonist here, a fifty-something man named Anders Hill, deserves both. Emblematic of the white man’s mid-life crisis, Anders expects a grandiose philosophical payoff for his years spent providing for his family. To achieve this, he leaves his wife and retires early from his job in finance, determined to live a more virtuous life. It’s unclear whether this is meant to be ironic — although his decisions are clearly made out of a blind self-interest, he also seems genuinely hurt and baffled when things don’t go his way. The character nuance is impressive, but it’s also intermittently unsatisfying.
The drama unfolds, unsurprisingly, as Anders begins to find his newfound freedom more stifling than therapeutic. His ex-wife, Helene (Edie Falco) and his aimless son, Preston (Thomas Mann), seem perfectly fine, or at least unchanged, in his absence. Out of a morbid temptation, he attends Helene’s annual Christmas Eve party, making everyone uncomfortable and inadvertently stirring the pot. He even does drugs with Charlie Ashford (Charlie Tahan), a rebellious young man around Preston’s age.
The judgment Anders faces at the party, doled out passive-aggressively by the town’s elite, is very much rooted in a sense of place. Westport, the place in question, is at the southern end of Connecticut, close enough to Manhattan to be labeled a “commuter town.” This confinement is extratextually rich — rainbow-colored towels featured on the poster and in the opening sequence mirrors an image from The Stepford Wives, and the town’s iciness toward Anders recalls Anne Hathaway’s battle with familial scorn in Rachel Getting Married. In these films, the trite aspects of the family drama make way for experimentation (In Stepford Wives, it’s satire, and in Rachel Getting Married, it’s a subtle form of psychological horror). Perhaps tellingly, The Land of Steady Habits’ strongest moments are also the ones that veer furthest away from traditional genre tropes.
To her credit, Holofcener’s film isn’t overtly bleak or schmaltzy. The stakes are relatively low, but it’s hard not to feel bad for Anders on a personal level. In addition to Helene’s disdain, Preston regards Anders with alternating amusement and contempt. With his own problems, including a stint in rehab and an unpromising future, Preston’s attitude seems notably similar to his dad’s, and he’s unable to conjure the motivation or work ethic to actually move his life in a new direction. Here, Holofcener seems to be criticizing the entitlement of her male characters and the expectation that success will come to them without putting in the work.
But this sort of aimless existentialism is given nuance, too. Charlie Ashford, for all his arrogance, is a tragic figure. As he and Anders begin to hang out, he talks about a comic book project he’s working on where a dog gets launched into space. “He can’t understand what’s happening to him,” Charlie explains. Besides acting as a metaphor for the film at large, the project also demonstrates Charlie’s honorable confidence in art and, especially in relation to Anders or Preston, a genuine desire to make changes through action. This is a testament to Holofcener’s talent as a writer. Without Charlie, the film might have been more of a full-on satire of aristocratic disenchantment. Could Anders or Preston, armed with a more productive idealism, use their values to enact real change?
This nuance extends to the film’s tremendous acting. This is probably the most clean-cut mass audiences have ever seen Mendelsohn, who’s been typified over time as a sleazy villain (Bloodline, The Dark Knight Rises, The Place Beyond the Pines, Rogue One, Ready Player One), and it makes sense to see him here as a sort of anti-hero.
But Mendelsohn’s Anders is also strangely charming. The film’s first few scenes show him bumbling around local stores (he aimlessly shops for knickknacks to decorate his new condo), flirting with women and sleeping with them. It’s smart that these scenes, not overtly wordy and even somewhat withholding, lead the film, because it gives Anders a sense of mystery. It’s vaguely apparent that he’s not the most virtuous man, but here, lighthearted and non-threateningly chivalrous, he seems equally sweet.
Even Helene and her new fiance (Bill Camp) are complicated characters, seemingly well-meaning but just as prone to resentment and judgment. But while this ambivalence is admirable on a character sense, some of the film’s dramatic revelations feel less organic than expressly theatrical without firmer territory to stand on. The odd relationship between Anders and Charlie is arguably the film’s most potent element, but there’s also his blossoming romance with a recently-divorced woman named Barbara (Connie Britton) that does little but flesh out Anders’ character and, unfortunately, wasting a great actress.
The Land of Steady Habits is an easy watch at 98 minutes, and its life on Netflix will make it accessible to audiences who might never have considered seeing it in theaters. But the packaging also gives it a sort of Lifetime movie quality that cheapens its complexity. The big dramatic climax, toward the end of the film, plays less like a substantial plot development than an inevitable force pushing the narrative forward.
The same can be said about the film as a whole. It’s certainly an accomplishment, but given Holofcener’s demonstrable skill and the level of acting talent on display, it feels at most like an enjoyable but minor note in what should hopefully be a long and fruitful career.