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16th of November 2018

Movies



Review: In ‘The Land of Steady Habits,’ Suburban Malaise, With a Twist

The American suburb is zoned for ambivalence. Neither city nor country, suburbia — at least in the imagination of too many novelists, filmmakers and songwriters to count — yokes affluence to alienation. Beyond the well-kept lawns and hedges are seething hives of adultery, anomie and addiction. These pathologies may not actually be more common along the commuter rail lines than anywhere else, but there is an imposing body of literature that insists otherwise.

Nicole Holofcener’s “The Land of Steady Habits,” adapted from a Cheeveresque novel of the same name by Ted Thompson, revisits this well-trodden territory, focusing on a familiar type of character. Anders Hill, played with wobbly, tongue-tied charm by Ben Mendelsohn, is a middle-aged former “finance guy” in Westport, Conn., who has walked out on his job and his marriage for the usual vague, existentially urgent and ethically dubious reasons.

ImageLost and looking in suburbia: Ben Mendelsohn playing a sad Connecticut dad in the Cheeveresque “The Land of Steady Habits.”CreditAlison Rosa/Netflix

Leaving his gracious old colonial in the care of his ex-wife, Helene (Edie Falco), Anders says that he has decided to give “condo living” a try. To feather his bachelor nest, he wanders through retail stores soliciting decorating tips from women — customers and salespeople alike — and then sleeping with them. It doesn’t seem like much fun, for him or his partners, but it’s a way of passing the time.

Anders may have quit the rat race, but he can’t seem to stay away from the track. He goes to parties where he runs into Helene, and pursues awkward conversations with old friends who are less than delighted to be in his company. Helene has moved on to a new man (Bill Camp), which bothers Anders more than he would like to admit. He tries to maintain a semblance of paternal authority with his drifting, post-collegiate son, Preston (Thomas Mann), and indulges in some desperate adolescent behavior with another young man, Charlie (Charlie Tahan), who takes a lot of drugs.

Nobody seems to like Anders all that much, and he doesn’t really care. He acts less like a man in free fall than like a guy who’s got it all figured out, which has the effect of making him at once pitiable, infuriating and kind of mysterious. Maybe he is privy to some kind of esoteric knowledge. Or maybe he’s just a shallow jerk embracing his true identity.

Since this is not “American Beauty,” Anders’s privileged turmoil doesn’t become a gaseous metaphor for a filmmaker’s half-baked sociological insights. “The Land of Steady Habits” is a Nicole Holofcener movie — her first feature since “Enough Said” in 2013 (and her first ever without Catherine Keener in the cast) — which is to say a funny, sweet-and-sour study in envy, cruelty, bad decision-making and forgiveness. Ms. Holofcener, for more than two decades one of the sharpest anatomists of upper-middle-class American life, is more interested in the idiosyncrasies of behavior and the texture of specific relationships than in easy generalities. So even though Anders and the people around him can be sorted into recognizable types (a fault, mostly of Mr. Thompson’s book), they are also amusing and awful in ways that can feel disconcertingly real.

VideoA preview of the film.Published OnSept. 6, 2018

“The Land of Steady Habits” (Connecticut’s longstanding unofficial nickname) is not only Anders’s story, though his self-centeredness can make it feel that way. As he stumbles toward either a bright new beginning or a total flameout — the first foreshadowed by a tentative romance with Barbara (Connie Britton), the second by his age-inappropriate semi-friendship with Charlie — other lives are illuminated, and also singed, by his wayward comet’s path. His blithe clumsiness contributes to, and directly causes, a lot of hurt, visited especially on the next generation. Middle-aged guys may muddle through, but young men like Preston and Charlie risk losing their way, and even their lives.

The darkness and pain haunting Westport are more pronounced — and maybe for that reason less affecting — than the melancholy and quiet rage that figure in Ms. Holofcener’s other movies. The suburban setting is acutely rendered, but it also feels a little secondhand, with not as much room for invention and oddness than the New York and Los Angeles of “Lovely and Amazing,” “Friends with Money” and “Please Give.”

But within these constraints, the performances have sufficient grit — and the writing has just enough polish — to make “The Land of Steady Habits” feel unpredictable and fresh. Mr. Mendelsohn, who looks and speaks as if he were perpetually sucking on a cough drop, makes no overt gestures either in the direction of likability or awfulness. Anders can be thoughtless and casually cruel (after sex with Barbara, for example), and he can also be affable and honest. That it’s hard to tell the difference is a credit to the actor, who all but dares us to give up on the character altogether.

And the film’s strength is that it holds this out as a real possibility, taking seriously the proposition that redemption may be out of reach. In most versions of the suburban male midlife crisis story, the protagonist comes by our sympathy as if it were a birthright or a secular manifestation of grace. In Ms. Holofcener’s secular, implicitly feminist revision, Anders has no such entitlement. He’s stuck with himself, as everyone else — the audience included — is stuck with him. We make the best of it, and in this case “the best” is a very fine movie.

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