By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Oct 13, 2017 at 12:36 PM

Two movies into her career, writer-director Gillian Robespierre appears to have found her muse in messes.

Her impressive 2014 debut, the low-key, high-wire act "Obvious Child," put the untidy love life of a young female comedian in the center of its abortion rom-com plot (which may sound like a bad Hollywood dare, but it works infinitely better than it sounds).

Now comes her sophomore effort, the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival closing-night selection "Landline," which goes even bigger and spreads out even more emotional confusion and chaos, this time across an entire family living in the far-off world of 1995, when the disks were floppy, the Zimas were fizzy and the Lorena Bobbitt jokes were flying. The results are fittingly almost as messy as the discombobulated clan in the middle of it all – but thankfully just as funny, honest and endearing too.

"Obvious Child" breakout Jenny Slate returns to Robespierre’s ranks as Dana Jacobs, a layout editor for a NYC magazine – though more of a layabout thanks to the stress of her impending marriage to her sweet-but-dull fiancé (Jay Duplass, "Transparent"). She escapes work, as well as her life crisis wondering if her next life step is the best step, by having an affair with her handsome fluffy-haired ex (Finn Wittrock, "The Big Short") and moving back into her family’s Manhattan apartment – where it turns out they’re having a marital crisis of their own, as her rebellious teen sister Ali (newcomer Abby Quinn) thinks she’s discovered their putzy playwright father (John Turturro) is cheating on their exhausted mom (Edie Falco).

Because what better way to distract yourself from your own infidelity drama than with someone else’s, Dana teams up with Ali as amateur sleuths on the hunt for their dad’s mistress – but mostly find raves, PJ Harvey dance parties and California Raisin Halloween costumes.

Considering her daring debut, the featherweight loose plot is a small step back into familiarity for Robespierre. Sundance-stamped stories about dysfunctional families clumsily figuring out how to grow up at any age, like "Landline," have been a cliché since the days of, well, landlines.

However, Robespierre – along with co-writer and "Obvious Child" producer Elisabeth Holm – hasn’t lost any edge when it comes to filling these potentially commonplace characters with uniquely genuine, funny and painfully human people. Her sense of humor ­still tiptoes a careful but hilarious line between goofy raunch and sincere sweetness, such as an early shower scene that combines both standard and golden varieties into something oddly tender or a sequence dragging a hungover, puke-stained Dana out of bed flailing and moaning, topped with a sweet little sisterly button.

Meanwhile, the drama fits snuggly right in with the jokes, with Robespierre crafting authentic interactions and minuscule but moving moments that rarely overplay their hand. The final act especially features hearts breaking and warming all over the place, but it's less cloyingly, predictably sentimental and more played like little lovely grace notes – especially a final sequence that warmly wraps things up without actually wrapping much up. It’s a tribute to her and Holm’s generous writing that you understand and enjoy each character’s company despite their selfish flaws and hurtful decisions.  

She’s also been blessed with a phenomenally talented cast, able to walk that fine balance between cackles and crying. I take back my opening sentence: Messes might be Robespierre’s subject of choice, but Slate has been her perfect muse thus far. The brief "SNL" player (even without the infamous F-bomb on her opening night, her persona was probably too delightfully particular to last long on the sketch show) has found a perfect place in Robespierre’s films, both silly and sincere. She’s a goofball – flailing out of bed, cracking wise during a surprise drug deal or just chatting with a co-worker while coping with a romantic rendezvous rash – but always genuine too. It’s close to a pure comedic showcase for Slate, and she owns it – whether it’s a physical gag or using her uniquely giggly voice and delivery to make simply laughing just a little too loudly in a hip club worth a laugh in its own right, all with her heart on her sleeve (and an occasional infected piercing on her eyebrow).  

Quinn (who has probably never been seen in the same room as Alia Shawkat from "Arrested Development") makes for a perfect foil for Slate’s silliness, playing the typical teenage sulk with just a human touch of tenderness underneath the attitude. Meanwhile, Falco and Turturro help anchor the drama of "Landline" with their quietly devastating performances. They still sneak in some good funny lines too, but the way the pair plays their crumbling relationship – with each one silently and wearily registering dismissals and little verbal jabs that were maybe once friendly before apathy and exhaustion set in – gives the movie some of its most brutal emotional weight. Dana’s relationships are the star of the show, but in just a few glances, the two veteran performers communicate a whole other movie of feelings – resignation, melancholy, hurt, sweetness, confusion – mostly simmering outside of the spotlight.

Like all of its relationships, "Landline" has its fair share of messiness too. While it gratefully never goes full Buzzfeed quiz, the ’90s setting doesn’t feel particularly necessary – to the plot, the themes or even the humor – save for giving the audience pleasant flashbacks or giving the elevator pitch a quirky gimmick to stand out against similar stories. More pressingly, even at just 97 minutes, the film’s exceptionally shaggy and often aimless, with all of its dramas big and small lazily coming and going as they please. During some loose stretches, especially in the early going, viewers may find themselves asking the same questions as its leads: Where exactly is this all going?

But when those moments – and the performers in them – are this charming, entertaining and authentic, it’s hard to blame "Landline" for getting lost. It might get occasionally messy, but like Robespierre’s confuddled family learns, it’s a mess worth standing by (and dancing to 10,000 Maniacs with). 

"Landline": *** out of ****

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.