Movies

In The Land of Steady Habits, Nicole Holofcener Explores Uncharted Territory

The writer-director’s latest stars Ben Mendelsohn as her first-ever male protagonist.

In a scene from The Land of Steady Habits, Helene, played by Edie Falco, glowers at Anders, played by Ben Mendelsohn.
Ben Mendelsohn and Edie Falco in The Land of Steady Habits.
Netflix

Anders Hill (Ben Mendelsohn), the self-sabotaging mess at the center of Nicole Holofcener’s sixth feature film, The Land of Steady Habits, isn’t the sort of magnetic bad boy or brooding, complicated loner usually invoked by the word “antihero.” He’s just a sad middle-aged dad, shopping, when we first meet him, at a Bed Bath & Beyond in suburban Connecticut. His look of paralyzed indecision as he stares at a vast display of bath towels prefigures the dilemmas that will beset him throughout the movie. What does he actually like, anyway? What does he need? Who does he want to be when and if he ever grows up? And why is he so chronically deficient in the mental clarity and moral gumption it would take to formulate these questions and attempt to answer them, instead of flailing from one abysmal life choice to the next?

The towels, it turns out, are for a new condo Anders is furnishing from the ground up, having abruptly resolved to leave his wife Helene (Edie Falco) and retire from his lucrative job in finance. He’s a successful but alienated suburban commuter, a type familiar from the fictional 20th-century worlds of John Cheever or Mad Men, but he seems even more existentially adrift in the world of the present day. Anders knows he should be a better father to his son Preston (Thomas Mann), an aimless and financially dependent 27-year-old who has already been through a stint of rehab. But what is it exactly that a “good father” does? Anders can’t be sure, though he does learn the hard way that it probably shouldn’t involve, say, letting himself into his own former house in the middle of the night, drunk, to grab a popsicle from the freezer and leaf through old photo albums. A still less optimal parenting strategy: getting high with the teenagers in the backyard at a former colleague’s fancy Christmas party.

Our antihero makes these bad choices, and a few far worse ones, over the course of a holiday season decked with bungled apologies and poorly concealed lies. He’s far from the only messed-up individual on view: His son appears have replaced substance addiction with new, equally antisocial habits. His ex-wife may be lying about just how long she’s been involved with her current boyfriend (Bill Camp). And the high schooler who passed him that bong at the party (Charlie Tahan) shows signs of being a talented but troubled kid. Still, Anders’ screwups are so colossal they tend to blot out the lesser constellations of neurosis that surround him.

The Land of Steady Habits is writer-director Holofcener’s first adapted script, from a novel by Ted Thompson. It’s also her first-ever film to feature a man as protagonist. Her previous features—Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends With Money, Please Give, and Enough Said—all took place in a world mainly inhabited by women, though they had plenty of memorable men in them too. To quote an ever-handy line from Walking and Talking, Holofcener has always played “vagina music,” and played it beautifully. This time around she’s trying a different, um, instrument, and the result isn’t always perfectly in tune. If her films so far have ranged from very good to great, The Land of Steady Habits exists somewhere at the low end of that continuum. But that still makes it a very good movie, full of sharp dialogue and lacerating insight about the haute-suburban milieu that the script both skewers and struggles to understand.

Not that The Land of Steady Habits positions itself as a social satire. It’s more of a character portrait made with a keen eye for the cultural and economic conditions in which its characters live. Holofcener has always made movies about people in the middle to upper-middle classes; the title Friends With Money could apply, at some level, to all of them. But this is the first time she’s chronicled the lives of the one-percenters, the five-bedroom-mansion, boat-in-storage crowd. “The land of steady habits”—the phrase is never defined, or even uttered, in the film—is a nickname for the Nutmeg State that goes back to the early 1800s. Originally the term was a compliment, implying a sense of pastoral calm and reliable political tradition: Connecticut was the place where, however the world might change, you could rely on the stability of the Federalist party.

In its more recent, ironic usage, the name mocks the suffocating bourgeois conformity that Anders seems to experience as an almost physical malady. He bitches to his fellow financiers about the posh sterility of their lives, but left to himself, he can’t really figure out anything better to do with his time. He buys useless, ugly tchotchkes to decorate his empty apartment, then picks up the salesgirl and takes her home for some terrible sex. He claims to be working with charities, then, when asked which ones, skitters away muttering something about “the cancer spectrum.” One might complain that there are too many scenes devoted to establishing these points about Anders’ character: He’s a rich, self-centered jerk—we get it. But even his worst decisions have a perverse relatability to anyone who’s ever deliberately torpedoed their own life (or secretly entertained the fantasy of doing so).

Anders leads an oppressively cloistered existence, which he resists in many unheroic ways, but his company never feels claustrophobic to us. The basset hound–eyed Mendelsohn is one of those actors with a face you could look at all day, as Holofcener herself observed in a recent interview (she also compares Mendelsohn’s inherent watchability to that of her longtime collaborator Catherine Keener, who’s appeared in all of her films except this one). Falco is also sensational, all the more so because her screen time is frustratingly limited. Helene is a well-written character, not in the least a cipher, but Falco gets only a few brief scenes to dig into her inner life. Mann and Tahan both leave strong impressions as spoiled, unhappy boys trying to figure out how to become grown men, despite the near-total absence in their lives of evidence that any such things exist. And Connie Britton gets maximum mileage from a small part as the most promising of Anders’ short-term sexual encounters. When, their first time in bed together, he casually insults the reading material on her bedside table, she shuts him down with a firmness that’s nothing short of inspirational.

If I had been blindfolded during the opening and closing credits, I’m not sure I could have guessed this was a Nicole Holofcener film. I might have pegged it as a first feature by a talented but still untested writer-director. But the sense that she’s exploring unfamiliar territory two decades into her career provides a freshness all its own. The age of #MeToo, and of mounting rage about income inequality, is a tough time to ask audiences to sympathize with the plight of a miserable rich white guy who treats other people like crap (though it should be said, Anders’ many modes of being terrible do not include any nonconsensual foisting). That The Land of Steady Habits makes us care as much as it does about a character this reprehensible is a testament to the gifts of both the man who plays him and the woman behind the camera, observing his every disastrous move with generosity and a kind of love.

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