'The Land Of Steady Habits': Ben Mendelsohn Comes Of Age For Nicole Holofcener [TIFF Review]

The sad, regretful notion of taking things for granted has dual applications in writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s latest humane comedic drama, the sharp, lovely, and wistful “The Land Of Steady Habits.” It’s an adultlescent story about a selfish, developmentally-arrested mid-fifty-year-old, who’s still coming of age, trying to figure out how to behave and how not to be such a selfish f*cking asshole. Unappreciative of his great life, he’s lost his family and now sits in the self-made pile of broken glass that is his lonely existence. There are no pieces to pick up and fix. This is a straight-in-the-trash’er of a life. Time to start over.

READ MORE: Toronto International Film Festival: 22 Most Anticipated Movies

Meanwhile, one can’t help but think of Holofcener, as well. She’s not remotely close to being down and out, obviously, and this is as strong as it gets to a “comeback” for someone who never went away, but as a culture that obsesses over all the shiny new things of youth and precocious creation, it’s easy to take a consistent great like her for granted. So, as we hunger and thirst for up-and-coming female voices, writers, characters, and points of view with renewed woke vigor, telling rich female-driven stories with layered, complicated female leads, let’s not forget Holofcener (“Friends With Money,” “Enough Said”) has been on the front lines, doing this very thing, in her whip-smart, funny, insightful way for over twenty years. I digress. She’s back, let’s pay attention, shall we?

READ MORE: 55 Must-See Films: The 2018 Fall Movie Preview

In “The Land Of Steady Habits,” the aforementioned Anders Hill (a wonderfully hangdoggy Ben Mendelsohn), tired of his comforts, has made the rash decision to quit his lucrative finance job, leave his wife (a terrific Edie Falco), and buy a fancy new condo. It’s an impetuous midlife crisis move, but the grass has always been greener for Anders. The problem is, he realizes almost immediately, with shame and regret, that’s it’s a terrible, poorly-thought-out decision (the film opens with a terrific shot of Anders overwhelmed in a Bed Bath & Beyond, staring at the walls of all the stuff, clearly clueless of where to start in his rebuilding).

READ MORE: Venice Film Festival Preview: 20 Most Anticipated Movies

Before Anders knows it, his ex-wife is shacking up with a new man, their friends have taken her side and excommunicated him, and his resentful, grown son (Thomas Mann), doesn’t really want anything to do with him. Bachelordom clearly sucks and the bright, hopeful possibilities he once thought were stiflingly out of reach, are an empty illusion.

READ MORE: 13 Movies To See In September

When the always irresponsible Anders befriends a drug-addicted teen (Charlie Tahan)—who happens to be the son of one ex-friends who no longer speak to him—this foolish decision leads him on a path of reckless and regrettable behavior with the kind of consequences that force Anders to grapple with his personal shortcomings and his stark limitations as a father.

“The Land Of Steady Habits” doesn’t really have much plot beyond that, but it doesn’t really matter, and it’s certainly never hurt Holofcener’s films before. This is Holofcener’s métier: drawing rich, complicated characters, many whom are fundamentally good, but make terrible choices, or in the case of Anders, assholes, who still have the capacity for thoughtfulness beyond their own self-centered sphere. Her technique makes you invest in Anders and lean in to see if he’s able to pull his head out of his ass.

An adaptation of Ted Thompson’s titular novel, ‘Steady Habits’ is the first finished feature-length film Holofcener hasn’t originated herself, and the first featuring a male lead (she’s adapted men’s works before, but those projects haven’t been made yet). Though you can hardly tell. Moreover, she understands men. How do women write such great male characters? They probably endured them. As fun as that sounds, however, the truth is Holofcener is a keen, truthful observer of human behavior in all its complex, self-destructive tendencies, and own-worst-enemy messiness.

Admittedly, “The Land Of Steady Habits” does get a little tripped up with its “subplot”— Charlie the drug addict. When the awful truths of Anders and Charlie’s friendship come to light, the third act veers dangerously close to something ungainly broad and that’s because it’s really the most plot she’s ever taken on. Fortunately, these moments pass like a spell.

As much as Anders is a shit, this, being a Nicole Holofcener film, the tender, charitable filmmaker can still engender sympathy for the character. Her career has been defined by a warm and funny empathy and compassion almost to a fault—finding the best in the worst people or focusing on those that put themselves second to others at their own detriment. ‘Steady Habits’ taps into that universal feeling of acceptance and understanding: we’re always all coming of age in a sense; we’re all still learning about who we want to be when we grow up.

Unsurprisingly, ‘Steady Habits’ features a murderer’s row of terrific supporting players Connie Britton, Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel, Josh Pais, Michael Gaston, it’s kind of “The Avengers” of character acting (and while we’re here, let’s give some props to Marcelo Zarvos’ beautifully wistful score). Mendelsohn, naturally, a mix of rascal and endearing loser, knocks it out of the park and Falco is commensurately fierce.

‘Steady Habits’ isn’t here to tell you to love and honor what you have. That moment’s gone for Anders, but togetherness, the movie seems to say, isn’t really all that bad. Holofcener knows human pathos, the melancholic, absurdist tragedy of it all, the laughter, the tears, the dark biting irony. She understands human behavior and her sharp, well-observed ‘Land Of Steady Habits’ is as lovely and near amazing as anything she’s made thus far, so please don’t forget. [B+]

Check out all our coverage from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival here.