Tuesday, October 16, 2018

MOVIE REVIEW/The Land Of Steady Habits
When Adulthood Is A Juvenile Escape From Loneliness

Wandering through an adult wasteland in Connecticut: Ben Mendelsohn as Anders and Edie Falco as Helene in Nicole Holofcener's "The Land Of Steady Habits" in theaters and on Netflix. Netflix 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The opening image in a store shows us that there's so much choice but it all looks so bland and overwhelming.  A cascade of overwhelming nothingness consumes the middle-aged divorcee and finance retiree Anders (Ben Mendelsohn), in Nicole Holofcener's sharply-observed drama "The Land Of Steady Habits".  "Habits", a far more melancholic outing than usual for the director, is partly about men struggling to connect to reality and a sense of masculinity and responsibility in an America that has left sentimentality behind.   

The disconnected Anders has already been promiscuous, sleeping with three women before we've even settled into the morass of his mid-life crisis.  A lonely man-child mired in a haze, Anders has a garish, oversized Christmas display outside his vast, empty Connecticut home.  Anders's neighbor snarkily rejects the display, an outsized metaphor of Anders's present state.  Helene (Edie Falco) is shocked her ex-husband Anders has been invited by their mutual friend to a party she's attending.  Why was he invited?  Anders and Helene's disaffected relationship is punctuated by their aimless son Preston (Thomas Mann), who is bouncing precariously between odd jobs and heading down the wrong road fast.

Anders is straining to make amends for his failures with Preston, but it is his parallel connection to a teenage boy Charlie, that strikes the turning point for a sad man whose loneliness as worn by Mr. Mendelsohn is aching.  Mr. Mendelsohn is very comfortable in a role as a man running away from and facing his failures at the same time.  His physicality is so good it is actually exhausting, and Ms. Holofcener as a director is so good at intellectualizing and naturalizing adult situations and the genuine emotions and feelings emanating from them.  Her direction is open, clear and not the least bit self-conscious, even as her characters are often so. 

Ms. Holofcener is even better as a writer, perhaps the only American film director these days who consistently makes fine adult dramas about people in their fifties that are truly authentic, affecting and complicated.  "The Land Of Steady Habits" presents a tapestry of failure of mature people grappling with a modern 2010s world -- mainly it is men struggling, but so are women in this suffocating Connecticut enclave, whether with men, against them or without them.  I admired "Habits" for its ragged uneasiness and stubborn resistance to farce; another director might have taken this story and thrown it down an avenue of complete physical chaos.  Instead, and thankfully, Ms. Holofcener and author Ted Thompson adapt the latter's same-titled book nicely to the big screen.

I couldn't help thinking that "Habits" plays as a tragicomedy, but that is somewhat owing to the self-awareness and recklessness Mr. Mendelsohn pours into Anders.  He casts a rumpled, even sensitive figure in quiet moments and you feel for him, even as he's left a trail of detritus in his wake.  Sometimes Helene and Anders are scolded and upbraided by Preston, and at times the son seems more adult than his parents do.  Both generations -- parents and children -- frequently criticize each other.  I don't think "Habits" takes sides around the fallout from divorce -- the film readily admits that Helene and Anders are not in control of their own lives, which is probably the reason Preston is angry and alienated.  Men are also busy giving unwanted validation and patronage to women.  There is an assembly line ordinariness and roteness that confines the characters on display here.  What better to depict this than in the cliched boredom and stereotyped horrors of suburbia as a headquarters of mediocrity and malevolence?

"I made that garden from nothing -- and it means something!", Helene declares to Anders, who chose to jettison their marriage for more space in his life.  Now Anders has too much space and just doesn't know what to do with it.  Anders is not a villain as much as he is a victim of the bed he has made and lied in.  Growing up and letting go isn't easy, especially for some men.  Some women, like Barbara (Connie Britton), are mirror images of Anders.  Barbara wonders why she went on a date with someone to a strip club.  The someone apparently had sex with her in a men's bathroom and left.  At first I thought pathetic, brutal and sad but then I realized (and added to the list): lonely.  There are adults who don't want to grow up and there are adults who just can't.

With: Elizabeth Marvel, Charlie Tahan, Bill Camp, Josh Pais, Victor Williams.

"The Land Of Steady Habits" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  There are sexual situations, graphic language, drug use and some brief violence.  The film is on Netflix and is in some movie theaters in the U.S.  The film's running time is one hour and 38 minutes.

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