I couldn't remember the last time I'd watched a contemporary, mainstream, non-genre movie, so I decided to give one an experimental try. I picked Nicole Holofcener's The Land of Steady Habits
(2018) because it was on Netflix and starred Ben Mendelsohn, whom I have liked ever since he strode across the rainy black sands of the planet Lah'mu in a dramatically unsuitable cape. I enjoyed it; I may even recommend it. I think I have much more of a framework for talking about film noir.
The title is a double-edged nickname for the state of Connecticut, in whose commuter-line suburbs the action, such as it is, of this astringent, empathic sort-of-comedy takes place. Metaphysically it is the plodding routine out of which our semi-hero imagined he would phoenix when he retired early from a high-flying finance job, divorced his wife of three decades, and moved out of their lovingly gardened five-bedroom into a cookie-cutter condo which he now decorates, quizzically and haphazardly, with retail-store knick-knacks and a superfluity of Christmas ornaments; actually all he did was blow up his life. The first time we catch sight of Anders Harris (Mendelsohn), he's staring with bemused determination at the rainbow-stacked walls of towels that dwarf his lanky, black-jacketed, basket-carrying figure at Bed, Bath & Beyond—a poetically dystopian shorthand for the combination of poshlost and decision freeze that now seems to govern Anders' life as he meanders through his aimless new routine of drinking too much and failing to satisfy the women he appears to meet exclusively while shopping, peering in at the windows of his old life as if not quite certain how he ended up on the outside of it, although his ex-wife Helene (Edie Falco) could tell him in so many words. "That's why we got divorced, right? We were all in the way of your happiness." Six months past her ex-husband's midlife implosion, she's the one blooming, her serious new relationship (Bill Camp) marred only by the disconnected incursions of Anders himself, loose end, loose cannon, loser in general. Did you hear about the time he drunkenly let himself into his old house and almost got conked with a golf club by his wife's new man? Or the time he did a hit off a bong with a bunch of high school kids and didn't even stop to ask if there was angel dust laced into that weed? He can't even summon the responsibility to co-parent his similarly floundering son Preston (Thomas Mann), instead falling into an awkwardly drug-fueled camaraderie with Charlie Ashford (Charlie Tahan), the sharp-spoken, artistically gifted, seriously troubled son of his former neighbors (Elizabeth Marvel and Michael Gaston). The Christmas season is coming on fast, one of those dry green winters we get so often nowadays. The two families chime and intertangle, slant-paralleled by their children whose flameouts are the visible symptoms of their parents' more successfully sublimated ills. Between them swings Anders in greying tardy adolescence, frequently absurd and never totally an asshole; what he is
is what we don't know if he'll figure out before anyone else's life blows up to match.
In describing this film to spatch
, I asked if it would be rude to liken it to American Beauty
(1999) if that movie hadn't sucked on ice. I am afraid it is my major referent for white middle-class suburban angst on film; it is a genre I have consistently bounced off in literature, which means it intrigues me that I didn't hate The Land of Steady Habits
. I think it helps that Anders, unlike Spacey's protagonist, does not signal his existential panic attack by setting his sexual sights on a teenager; he meets grotty-cute with fellow divorcée Barbara (Connie Britton) in the neon-pink men's room of a strip club where she groans, accepting the handful of wet paper towels that Anders chivalrously passes her over the top of the stall door, "I haven't thrown up in a club since I was twenty-two." With her, he can demonstrate a chagrined self-awareness that's better than self-deprecating charm, although he can still almost ruin a date just by opening his mouth at the end of it. (He manages to apologize for insulting her self-help book by admitting his own anomie, acknowledging that she does deserve her "best life." She accepts gracefully, settling into the bed behind him: "I know I do. That's why I bought the fucking book.") In terms of age-inappropriateness, it is messier and more interesting that he tries to treat like a rational age-mate an out-of-control adolescent desperately looking for a role model, and it is bracing that the film does not permit Charlie to find one in Anders. "You have the balls to live your life, dude!" the kid exhorts him, a two a.m. gate-crasher carrying a turtle in a blue cardboard Keds box, his wrists still braceleted with hospital ID plastic. "That's what sets you apart from the rest of these fucking zombies! You can't go halfway. You can't be you and stay in favor." Anders still full-body facepalming from the discovery that his idiot moment with the PCP has become the talk of their "really small town" is less than flattered by the proposition. I have seen Mendelsohn so often with violence simmering in his rangy frame, it's fascinating to see him play those same subcutaneous tensions for deadpan beats of comedy and a sympathy that the film never twists our arms to give. Nothing about the mess this character has made of his life valorizes or even emphasizes him past the fact that he's human and he's hurting: as with similar disaster zones played by Van Heflin, either that's enough or it isn't. Jurassic strata of cluelessness can flake off with a sudden glass-blue glance or a twitch of his long rueful mouth, or the density of his gaucherie can bring on its own pang of pity. Or just irritation. That is the other relevant difference from my memories of American Beauty
, the possibility that Anders might be, in either the spiritual or the narratological senses, irredeemable, and if so the film would feel sorry for him but move on. We have the younger generation to worry about, so much more of their lives at the mercy of their mistakes. We have women like Barbara with her middle-aged curves and her gingery blonde mane of hair, apotropaically but sincerely worrying out loud that she's scared a date off by showing him photos of her adult kids. Turn the kaleidoscope and she could be the protagonist, or spiky Helene, or Sophie Ashford, gravely and piercingly taking care of the stray child within reach instead of her inaccessible own. In others of Holofcener's movies, I have the sense they would be.
As with Ida Lupino, I may have come into Holofcener's filmography at the least characteristic point: The Land of Steady Habits
was her first movie with a male protagonist and her first time adapting and directing from another writer's material, in this case the same-named novel by Ted Thompson. I am not sure which of their faults it is that the film after an hour of gently drifting, colliding character study rather suddenly in the third act develops a plot, but while it's not a bad plot, it is signally less compelling to me than just watching these characters bounce around their lives in Westport, CT (played by Tarrytown, NY, which explains why I thought the downtown looked familiar). At its best it's as unpredictable as Anders and as impossible to look away from, whether trainwreck or grace; the cinematography by Alar Kivilo is mostly transparent prose, but every now and then it gifts the audience with a weird and lingering image like the opening shot of Anders vs. the towels or a boatyard of pleasure craft shrink-wrapped and dry-docked for winter like a flotilla of ghosts. Anders askew on a couch, his face illuminated blue-gold-green-pink by a multicolored tangle of Christmas lights. An open but untouched magnum of champagne being smashed, like a silent melodrama or a ship's christening, by the cowcatcher of an oncoming freight train. There are a couple of shots of salt marsh I'd swear I've seen from the Amtrak regional, the stiff tawny ripple of cordgrass and mirror-grey sea, gull-flecked seawalls, mirror-grey sky. Mendelsohn is wonderful, funny and heart-twisting and utterly natural once I got used to his American mumblecore accent; Britton is not in enough scenes, but she's brilliant in all the ones she gets. Tahan, Mann, Falco, even Gaston whose character is mostly defined by his cigar and his fondness for the word "irregardless" are all precise and recognizable people, types only insofar as the slice of affluent America to which they belong idiosyncratically exists. I'm all right with not living there, but I had a much better time with the parts that weren't salt marsh than I would have expected from a summary of prosperous ennui. This experiment brought to you by my steady backers at Patreon