Photos | Netflix / Neon
From left: Connie Britton and Ben Mendelsohn in “The Land of Steady Habits.” “Assassination Nation” is the story of a malicious data hack that exposes the secrets of a town, prompting chaos and four girls’ fight for survival.
Ben Mendelsohn stars in a deeply felt character study of a midlife crisis in “The Land of Steady Habits,” directed by the Queen of the Understated, Nicole Holofcener. The departure for her is that this film centers on a male rather than the female-centric material she is known for, from her ‘90s debut “Walking and Talking” through “Lovely and Amazing” and “Friends with Money,” all of which leave women wincing in recognition of her subtle and effective tales.
Holofcener proves no less adept at developing a male character in Anders Hill (Mendelsohn), who abandons his high-paying job in finance, his wife (Edie Falco) and their shiftless, well-educated son, Preston (Thomas Mann from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) in favor of doing pretty much nothing. He turns away from his old life, and the film finds him in the midst of what comes next, which seems to be pretty much nothing.
When we meet him, he is wandering through a cathedral of towels in Bed, Bath & Beyond. A fascinating thread of consumerism runs through the film, appropriate since Anders made this drastic life change as a specific rejection of his wealthy, materialistic lifestyle in Westport, Connecticut. To beautifully highlight the hypocrisy of this and Anders’ failure to meaningfully reject these concepts, he spends the first 20 minutes of the film not just shopping at stores but bedding the salespeople he meets there. He’s still focused on acquisition.
His son, who graduated from Northwestern but remains aimless, lives with his mom and works at her business. The film is full of men who don’t know what to do with themselves, your typical adrift young men, and Anders gives them an example of what this looks like in adulthood. At first he looks pretty cool to disaffected young guys like Charlie, the son of his wife’s best friend. Anders bonds with Charlie over drugs and a rejection of the proverbial rat race.
Mendelsohn’s wry and appealing manner slowly gives way to a stunning lack of moral imperative that is nothing short of tragic, as it turns out, and his calibration from the kind of adult a young man would find cool to an adult whose ambivalence is almost evil is devastating. He asks the question of his life — “What if I just stop caring and trying?” — and the answers become increasingly grave. He rejects responsibility but it does not reject him; it finds him anyway. You can tell it’s a Holofcener movie because, although it focuses on a male protagonist, women are the closest the film gets to heroes, trying desperately to hold things together when the grown men no longer seem to care what happens to their sons.
Anders’ immaturity becomes the ultimate luxury, but the cost is incredibly high. Holofcener is often criticized for a lack of plot or action in her films, but I don’t find that to be true in this one. This film begins as a story of ennui, filled with wise and telling details and well-written dialogue, but it expertly pursues events to a more extreme conclusion than you might expect. “The Land of Steady Habits” is a deeply affecting drama.
The interplay between adults and their older offspring is interesting to me when the responsibilities toward the former children, as they grow up to adulthood, are not so cut and dried, and the long repressed demands of the parents’ own lives compete for attention. Adults, particularly women, struggle to walk the line between helicoptering, or coddling, or tough love, or just trying to keep their kids alive, and it’s a very profound path to consider in this story.
“The Land of Steady Habits” is currently streaming on Netflix.
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