‘The Land of Steady Habits’ Review: Ben Mendelsohn Stars in a Rare Misstep for Nicole Holofcener

Despite Ben Mendelsohn's wonderful turn as a relatively normal divorcee, Nicole Holofcener's Netflix movie is a contrived character study.

A probing but misshapen drama about a wealthy, middle-aged retiree who’s left his wife (and his career) in search of the uncomplicated buoyancy that used to define his life, Nicole Holofcener’s latest film might as well have been called “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Retired and Single.” Alas, when it came to the title of the writer-director’s first adaptation, “The Land of Steady Habits,” she was sort of handcuffed to the one that Ted Thompson used for his 2014 novel of the same name.

The term refers back to a centuries-old sobriquet for Connecticut; a moniker that was coined as a tribute to the state’s relaxed splendor, but has since curdled into an insult of its suburban conformity. Mercifully, neither Thompson nor Holofcener are much interested in exhuming the “American Beauty” of it all, as this brittle character study — like the rest of Holofcener’s work — errs more towards personal observation than it does social commentary (“The Ice Storm” ends up being a more accurate reference point). In other, less fortunate ways, “The Land of Steady Habits” is new terrain for the beloved auteur, whose biting comedies have always been funny and pointed in equal measure. Not only is it the only movie she hasn’t written from scratch, and the only movie she hasn’t centered on a woman, it’s also the only movie Holofcener hasn’t been able to make into something more than the sum of its parts.

The feral and unpredictable Ben Mendelsohn is cast against type as the relatively normal Anders Hill, a rumpled blanket of a man whom we meet as he strolls through the aisles of his local Bed Bath & Beyond in search of the right details to define his new life. On his own for the first time after decades of marriage to Helene (a seldom-seen Edie Falco), and bored out of his mind with nothing to do all day (he retired from the finance world because he couldn’t stand the greed and Machiavellian gamesmanship), Anders bobs around his new life like a kite in a hurricane. He buys a bejeweled lobster trap from a crafts store just because he needs something to put on the shelves of his spare apartment, and he sleeps with virtually every woman he meets while puttering around town in his form-fitting sweaters. Neither he nor his one-time sexual partners seem to enjoy themselves.

And then, against his better judgment, Anders decides to go stag to the neighbors’ annual Christmas shindig, which is always the hottest party in town. After an inevitable run-in with his ex and her new boyfriend (the ever-reliable Bill Camp), Anders slips outside to chat with some giggly youths who are smoking around a bonfire and offer him a rip from their makeshift bong. It isn’t until a few moments later that Anders learns that the smoke was laced with PCP, but the nearly fatal effect the drugs have on Charlie (Charlie Tahan), the homeowners’ slightly troubled son, is but a glimpse of the consequences that might result from Anders’ sudden affinity for risk-taking. Next up: the realization that he can’t afford the mortgage on the home he once shared with his ex-wife. Oops.

Over time, in ways both large and small, this wayward schlemiel will come to realize that cutting himself off from all his previous ties may not be as liberating in practice as it seemed in theory; that being replaced is a brutal feeling, and that freedom can be a heavy burden unto itself. “I used to have this vision,” Anders says. “My life was like a web. The more webs you had coming from you, then the more important you were. But if you vanish, then the people who were in your life, they learn to rely on someone else. And then the web just remakes itself and moves on without you.” Ideally, that’s the kind of thing someone realizes before they hit 50 and blow up the life they’ve built for themselves.

It’s a familiar crisis, but Mendelsohn is so cagey and unbalanced that it would surely be entertaining enough to follow Anders’ downward spiral to its logical conclusion. But Holofcener has opted not to significantly pare down the source material, and the decision to spend a little time on a lot of different characters results in a splintered story that muddles — rather then clarifies — its protagonist’s roundabout journey back to himself.

“The Land of Steady Habits”Alison Rosa

Not only does Charlie emerge as a major figure, but so does his frazzled and helpless mom (the great Elizabeth Marvel, creating a fully realized character in just a small handful of scenes). There’s also Barbara (Connie Britton), an obligatory love interest who Anders meets in the men’s bathroom of a strip club. And then there’s Anders’ son, Preston (Thomas Mann), a 27-year-old who’s fresh out of rehab and still looking to get a foothold on his life. The kid is an effective personification of his dad’s failures — and his ongoing responsibilities — as a parent, but he plays far too prominent a role in a movie that struggles to get ahold of its hero, and his scenes without Anders feel as though they belong to another story altogether. Preston’s subplot only seems even more regrettable in hindsight, as it builds to an unbelievable coincidence, and some very convincing proof that Can’s “Vitamin C” needs to be retired from movie soundtracks for a long, long time.

While individual moments in “The Land of Steady Habits” brim with the casual wit and grace that’s endemic to Holofcener’s work, the plottiness of the whole thing doesn’t play to her strengths. While the number of threads packed into this 98-minute film supports Anders’ notion feeling that his life is a tangled web that will grow around his absence, Holofcener eventually has so many plates in the air that she has to concoct a slew of contrivances just to keep them spinning. Perfect little fragments — like the bit where Mendelssohn softly mutters “what a stupid fucking thing, to be a parent” — are washed away by a mess of incidents and forced encounters that detract from the organic energy that all of the writer-director’s characters need to survive.

Life, it seems, is never really sorted; it always goes on, with or without your input. Over the course of “The Land of Steady Habits,” Anders finds that the courage it takes to leave it all behind is nothing compared to the courage it takes to stick around and stay involved. He learns that being responsible to the right people is the most liberating thing in the world. But the closer he gets to that understanding, the further Holofcener’s film gets away from him. By the time he reaches his bittersweet destination, it’s hard to believe that he was able to find his way there.

Grade: C

“The Land of Steady Habits” premiered at the 2018 International Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting on September 14.

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