Director Nicole Holofcener’s cinema often tackles the guilt and ennui of the wealthy, whom she invests with a sense of wistful absurdity while staunchly resisting melodrama. The filmmaker values formal as well as narrative precision, as evinced by the opening scene of The Land of Steady Habits. Anders Hill (Ben Mendelsohn), a prosperous middle-aged man, stands in a housewares store, facing a monolithic wall of color-coordinated bath towels. Anders then turns to face an essentially identical composition, though Holofcener doesn’t hold the shot for long. In a matter of seconds, the audience sees that Anders is stuck in the anonymous consumerist hell that’s familiar of many protagonists lucky enough to have such problems. But social scale is relative: One person’s pettiness is another’s existential crisis.
The Land of Steady Habits often suggests the film that American Beauty might have been if the latter had been pruned of its smug hysteria. Sam Mendes and Alan Ball’s film appeared to be convinced that it was the first to address the issue of bored white suburbanites, mixing sleaze and unearned uplift with smarmy abandon. Meanwhile, The Land of Steady Habits is, characteristically of Holofcener’s work, more sober and subtle. Anders’s rebellion against his environment is strikingly elided. When the film opens, he’s already left his wife, Helene (Edie Falco), and retired from insider trading. Which is to say that the glory of momentarily flipping off your personal ecosystem, a glory that filmmakers often invite us to vicariously share, is casually shown here to be fleeting as well as fraudulent. Anders checks out of his life only to go right back to wandering around, drinking too much, buying too many things, and having anonymous sex with the women he meets in faux-chic stores.
Anders’s new life actually seems pretty good—the dream, at least, of most straight men, though Holofcener has a wonderfully glancing way of deflating Anders’s pomposity. The film’s sex scenes are heartbreakingly brief and un-pleasurable, and punctuated with wry dialogue that embodies the disconnection at the heart of these roundelays. Though one also sees why Anders is so infrequently alone, as he’s attractive and self-aware enough to pass his selfishness and melancholia off as eccentric bits of “character.”
The film benefits enormously from the casting of Mendelsohn as an unexceptionally tormented upper-middle-class guy. Here, the actor submerges the aggression that’s often closer to the surface of his sleazy villain roles, giving Anders a mysterious internal tension that’s compelling and often funny. When Holofcener follows Anders around as he drifts in and out of the lives of Helene and his grown son, Preston (Thomas Mann), and their various friends, The Land of Steady Habits has a free-associational piquancy.
Of course Anders, by the dictates of the formula of the midlife-crisis dramedy, must grow up, dampening the film’s spontaneity. That said, Holofcener unleashes crackerjack scenes even in the film’s more ordinary second half, which rhymes Anders with a pair of lost young men. When the recently homeless Preston delivers booze to the house of Helene’s friend, Sophie (Elizabeth Marvel), whose son, Charlie (Charlie Tahan), has run away, Sophie insists that Preston take a shower and eat a slice of pizza. Afterward, she tips him hundreds of dollars. The beauty of the scene resides in Holofcener and Marvel’s straightforward rendering of a woman’s profound pain, which they refuse to cheapen with histrionics. It’s moving to see Sophie struggle with composure, which begets a kind of proxy forgiveness of Charlie.
Still, Holofcener’s rigorous sense of taste and control can also feel evasive in The Land of Steady Habits. One wishes that she would risk losing the course of her ship, such as in the film’s climax, in which the various narrative threads converge at a bitter Christmas Eve dinner. Sophie and her husband, Mitchell (Michael Gaston), feel with some degree of justification that Anders had a role in Charlie’s downfall, though Holofcener cuts the parents’ confrontation with Anders short, just as it turns violent. Of course, a prolonged brawl would disrupt the thornily implicative tone that Holofcener has maintained from film to film for over 20 years. And, sometimes, one wonders what might happen if the filmmaker were to take off her gloves and viscerally wrestle with the demons churning under the skins of her lost yuppies.