Jenny Slate’s raw, honest exploration of female sexuality is the most riveting part of ‘Landline’

Jenny Slate’s raw, honest exploration of female sexuality is the most riveting part of ‘Landline’
Abby Quinn, Edie Falco and Jenny Slate in ‘Landline’ IMDb
Abby Quinn, Edie Falco and Jenny Slate in ‘Landline’ IMDb
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For straight women, the opening scene of Landline might be an uncomfortable but familiar one: In it, Dana, played by Jenny Slate, is having sex with her fiance Ben, played by Jay Duplass, outside of her family’s country house when she tells him, “You can come if you want.” He laments that she doesn’t seem that “into it” before the two decide to call it quits and pull up their pants. Maybe having sex in the woods wasn’t such a good idea.

In just a few frames, the scene raises some of the movie’s most crucial questions: How can women access sexual pleasure? How can they express their desires to their partners? And how can they do all of that when all their fiance wants to do is fuck them against a tree?

These are dilemmas 30-something Dana, her teen sister Ali and their middle-aged mother Pat all wrestle with on their own terms, at vastly different stages in their lives. Their individual journeys revolve around the movie’s central conflict: the revelation that the family patriarch, Alan (played by John Turturro), has been cheating on Pat (Edie Falco) for an unknown amount of time with a woman in his writing club he calls “C.” Ali makes this discovery by accident, when she pops a floppy disk — Landline is a period piece set in 1995 — into the family desktop computer and happens upon dozens of emails exchanged between her father and “C.”

Despite the issues of betrayal, heartache and intimacy that are at work in Landline, the story doesn’t veer into melodrama. Writers Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm — the duo behind 2014’s acclaimed abortion comedy-drama Obvious Child, also starring Slate — have mastered the art of balancing the devastating with the humorous. That’s how the word “pussy” figures into Dana’s insecurity about her relationship with Ben.

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Let’s backtrack: Dana, who’s plagued with doubts over whether she should go through with marrying her fiance, struggles with the film’s themes about female pleasure most acutely. When she decides to ditch work one afternoon and hang out with an old college fling, Nate (Finn Wittrock), it’s clear that what she’s looking for isn’t just a little freedom and independence, but some kind of new and exciting sexual experience.

After spending the day together, Dana tells Nate that most of her nights spent with fiance Ben involve them falling asleep to prime-time television; if he “reaches for the candle,” she knows they’re going to have sex. All to say, it’s predictable, boring and vanilla. Dana wants something more. So, after smoking some weed with Nate — way out of character for the uptight Dana, who exclaims, “It’s on fire!” when he passes her the joint — she impulsively kisses him, initiating sex on a New York City park bench.

Later, deeper into her affair with Nate, Dana gets turned on when her fiance Ben says the word “pussy,” and asks him to say the word again while they have sex. Ben won’t, and Dana complains that she can’t be with someone for the rest of her life who can’t even say the word “pussy” — that is, someone who won’t indulge her sexual fantasies.

“We were fucking,” Dana tells Ben when he asks what just happened, “until you ruined it.”

There’s nothing particularly new or radical about women onscreen cheating on their partners. But what’s refreshing is how seriously Robespierre and Holm treat female desire, even though this film is a comedy (an understated one rooted in character, but a comedy nonetheless). For all of their female characters’ flaws — and there are many — their earnest pursuit of pleasure isn’t treated like one. In Landline, that pursuit is a valid and worthwhile one, for women of all ages.

Slate and Quinn on the set of ‘Landline’
Slate and Quinn on the set of ‘Landline’ IMDb

Less awkward (and less public) than Dana’s sexual encounters is that of her 17-year-old sister. There’s a scene where Ali has sex, for what’s understood to be her first time, and it’s framed through her perspective. She asks the boy she’s seeing, Jed (Marquis Rodriguez), if he brought condoms and asks him to put one on. Ali isn’t some conquest, as girls have long been portrayed in teen-centric sex comedies. She also isn’t in love with Jed and isn’t even particularly excited to be with him (when he asks her to be his girlfriend at one point, she turns him down); in that particular scene, though, sex is presented as something both parties are interested in.

Meanwhile, Ali and Dana’s mother, Pat, is figuring out what she wants from her marriage. She can either choose to keep ignoring her husband’s affair — which she eventually reveals that she’s known about for some time — or confront him about it, potentially changing her and her family’s lives forever. It’s not an easy position to be in; whatever she decides to do, she loses. So she chooses to reclaim some of the power in her relationship.

After going out for a drink alone one night, Pat comes home to find Alan sitting on the couch watching television. She sits next to him, slips her underwear off and climbs on top of him for a quick tryst. When they’re done, she asks bluntly how sex with her compares to sex with his mistress. He never gives a direct answer to her question, but admits to his infidelity.

Pat gets to use her sexuality to catch her husband off-guard and make him feel at least some modicum of guilt and shame. Robespierre and Holm let Pat be completely unapologetic about it; she wants the upper-hand again and, well, she manages to get off at the same time.

The aftermath of this literal and figurative climax isn’t what viewers might expect. There’s no shouting match or broken dishes. Instead, when Dana and Ali show up at the family house, they find Pat smoking a cigarette on the bathroom floor.

They sit down to comfort her, light up their own cigarettes (Dana, of course, coughs after one puff and discards hers in the toilet) and it’s suddenly clear: It isn’t just Alan’s extramarital affair that’s brought them all there. All three women are there, in that moment, because they’ve had their own difficulties with relationships. There’s an understanding among them — if there’s a single scene that captures the spirit of Landline, it’s that one.

Where they end up isn’t exactly perfect, but at least they can say they didn’t settle for anything less than what they wanted.

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