The Land of Steady Habits review – smart, sad Netflix tale of midlife crisis

In Nicole Holofcener’s sixth feature, adapted from Ted Thompson’s 2014 novel, a man’s midlife crisis is rendered with tragicomic sincerity

The women of writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s films have often been described as “dysfunctional” or “complicated”, the most rote of the catchwords used to suggest a kind of tough-as-nails realism. They are women, frequently single, sharp-tongued and exasperating, who evoke Henrik Ibsen’s groundbreaking Nordic anti-heroines, Nora Helmer and Hedda Gabler and Helene Alving, and the comic neuroses of Woody Allen, of whom Holofcener has been called the female counterpart. Like some, but not all, of Allen’s women – I’m thinking of Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives, Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo and, of course, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall – Holofcener’s protagonists are flawed, wry, introspective and modern. They’re easy to love on-screen, if less so to the people they’re on-screen with.

The Land of Steady Habits, Holofcener’s sixth feature film, an adaptation of Ted Thompson’s novel of the same name, is the first in which her lead is a man. It’s also the first that doesn’t include Catherine Keener, which is unfortunate if only because she’s been such a perfect vehicle and proxy for the director’s brand caustic, lifelike comedy. In this new film, a droll, sad and relentlessly truthful study of suburban ennui, Holofcener has turned her attention toward Anders Hill, a recently divorced, standard-issue sad dad played with sublime self-pity by the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn.

When we meet Anders he has left his job in finance, which he righteously calls a “system of monstrous greed”, and is hiding the fact that he hasn’t paid the mortgage for six months on the house he let his ex Helene (Edie Falco) keep in their divorce. Not five minutes into the movie, he’s accidentally smoked angel dust with a bunch of teenagers in her backyard. He’ll later find out his shrink was there to witness it.

In quitting his job, leaving his wife and moving out of his house, Anders is looking to break the steady habits of the film’s title, a centuries-old moniker for Connecticut derived from the state’s pattern of electing the same people to public office. But like so many middle-agers who fancy acts of radical self-reinvention, he ends up turning to booze, strip clubs and other single friends like Larry, played by a hilariously morose Josh Pais. As Anders blunders drunkenly into his ex-wife’s home and finds fellowship with a friend’s drug-addicted son (an impressive and mumble-spoken Charlie Tahan), one can quickly sense this is not so much a Kierkegaardian leap of faith as it is an abdication of responsibility. And while Mendelsohn doesn’t play self-sabotage as charmingly as Julia Louis-Dreyfus did in Holofcener’s indelible last effort Enough Said, he’s still an object of empathy, a defining characteristic of the figures who populate the director’s body of work.

The Land of Steady Habits is ultimately about people pretending not to want things they want: security, companionship, drugs, alcohol, normalcy. Holofcener’s characters are prideful to a fault, always lying to one another, though never out of malice. Funny, then, that her films are so bracingly honest. In one scene, Anders lies in bed next to Barbara (Connie Britton) and makes fun of the self-help book on her nightstand, cornily titled Live Your Best Life Today.

“What is it with you women and these books?” he asks, an obviously idiotic and yet foreseeable thing for the rudderless divorcee to say to the one woman in his life he’s managed not to alienate. “Are you in my bed, making fun of my book?” she replies. Realizing his faux pas, he tucks himself under the covers and attempts a meager recovery: “I’m sorry. You deserve your best life today.” “I know,” she says, their evening clearly spoiled. “That’s why I bought the fucking book.”

Ben Mendelsohn and Edie Falco in The Land of Steady Habits.
Ben Mendelsohn and Edie Falco in The Land of Steady Habits. Photograph: Alison Rosa/Netflix

Holofcener writes dialogue, suffused with barbed wit and quiet resentments, that’s deeply insightful though not necessarily cerebral. To say her characters talk like real people doesn’t quite capture it; they talk like themselves, which is a testament to the director’s intuitive grasp of tone and characterization. Holofcener has called Luis Buñuel, the master of absurdist bourgeois satire, an influence. However, unlike Buñuel, whose best films (The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) lampoon the conventions of upper-middle-class life, Holofcener’s satire is of a gentler, more generous sort. There are occasional histrionics – in Friends With Money, Frances McDormand throws an unforgettable tantrum in the Gap; in Steady Habits, the great Michael Gaston stamps out a cigar on Anders’ forehead – but the comedy of manners is always counterbalanced by a comedy of melancholy.

Take, for instance, a scene where Anders gets high with Charlie, his son Preston’s (Thomas Mann) friend. Anders says something crude and boyish about a woman’s breasts. You think the twentysomething’s going to one-up him with smut, but he sighs. “My mom’s got these, like, veiny yoga mom arms and they make me want to cry,” he says, before ranting about his dad’s usage of the non-word “irregardless”. Conversations proceed with a rhythm and ambivalence that’s both funny and sad, without artificiality or look-at-me realism.

Because this is primarily the story of a single dad, there’s not enough of either Connie Britton or Edie Falco, whose Helene is warm and resolute. That you could imagine their characters front and center in a different Holofcener film speaks to how well and fully they’re wrought, even as they appear sparingly. The Land of Steady Habits, though not as funny and breezy as Enough Said or Friends With Money or Please Give, is a natural extension of Holofcener’s work, the totality of which is, in part, a rebuke of the idea that likability is necessary or even desirable in film characters. Her characters, rather, are acquired tastes, women (and, now, men) for whom we first have understanding, and then compassion, and then eventually, after they’ve made a royal mess of their lives, a kind of involuntary warmth.

  • The Land of Steady Habits is showing at the Toronto film festival and will be released on Netflix on 14 September


Jake Nevins

The GuardianTramp

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