“We observe the action with the same uninvolvement as when one overhears snippets of conversation from passing strangers.”
by Ken Bakely
It’s hard to care all that much about what happens to Anders (Ben Mendelsohn), the main character in Nicole Holofcener’s The Land of Steady Habits. Though he is perpetually bored and recently divorced, the first issue arises because he had the wherewithal to retire early from his high-paying finance job in the city, and the second issue arises because we quickly realize that he isn’t a very nice person. Of course, we’re meant to hope that his grouchy glumness can change, but Holofcener, working from Ted Thompson’s novel of the same name, struggles to make him compelling. Anders stumbles into situations, tries to pin down new relationships, and navigates dealing with his ex-wife, Helene (Edie Falco), and adult son Preston (Thomas Mann). The plot points are loosely written, but the characters are too contrived and one-note to feel lifelike, leaving the film in a state of apathetic limbo.
Ironically, it’s one that resembles Anders’s multifaceted malaise, as his fulfilled dreams of escaping the manic greed of his job in New York City transition into new dreams of escaping the monotony of Connecticut. The Land of Steady Habits follows everyone throughout the leadup to the first Christmas after the formal end of Helene and Anders’s marriage. Yet because it chooses Mendelsohn’s character as its definitive focus, it becomes little more than another shallow reach into a suburban midlife crisis. He befriends Charlie (Charlie Tahan), the wayward teen son of family friends; manages to make himself look progressively worse every time he encounters Helene and her new boyfriend Donny (Bill Camp); and generally wanders around town drunk and bitter, searching to fill a hole in his life that seems to take a new form every time he gets close to filling it.
Mendelsohn tackles the material with admirable skill, conveying his character’s sardonic outlook with a grounded lack of austerity. Anders isn’t angry with the world or hellbent on any particular solution to his problems. Holofcener and Mendelsohn choose instead to make him more bemused. There’s a version of this movie where that kind of work is rewarded by an observant and livelier script, but it would need a central drive that this one lacks. The Land of Steady Habits moves at an incremental pace, shifting through days and weeks at an instinct pace before culminating on Christmas Eve and finishing with a slapdash epilogue without explaining how the remaining loose threads resolved themselves. There’s nothing truly misshapen about the script, though despite the best efforts of Mendelsohn and company, it’s stuck in a landscape bereft of energy and as barren as New Engand’s December chill, draining the color out of the grass and dotting it with pathetic touches of early snowfall.
Consequently, decisions meant to underline the hardened stasis of Anders and his social circles take on an undesirable meta-commentary. A prominent example of this is Alar Kivilo’s color-desaturated and distant cinematography, which avoids close-ups and frequently frames actors standing or sitting behind objects. As the story lumbers from act to act and interpersonal relationships never evolve as much as they just change, The Land of Steady Habits reveals itself as a poor fit for Holofcener’s established fascination with complex adult tragicomedies. As viewers, we can’t find a clear way into anyone’s head, nor can we draw connections between clues about the past and the final sequence’s snippets of the future. As a result, we observe the action with the same uninvolvement as when one overhears snippets of conversation from passing strangers. By the nature of their being human, we know that they have fascinating qualities, but there’s no way for us to find out more, and no real reason for us to want to know all about their dilemmas, anyway. We hope they feel better soon, at least.