With all his recent and upcoming sneering blockbuster villainy in Rogue One, Ready Player One, and Captain Marvel, Hollywood seems to have forgotten what Ben Mendelsohn is truly best at – playing a sad sack. This is meant as no insult to this truly phenomenal actor; there’s no one on earth better at it than him, and the primary joy of Nicole Holofcener’s The Land of Steady Habits is her complete understanding of how best to use her cast. A gentle, sharply written family drama, it’s elevated by Mendelsohn – playing retired banker Anders Hill, Holofcener’s first male protagonist – being a perfect fit for the writer-director’s style.
The eponymous Land refers to the setting of Conneticut, so named for its ever-predictable voting patterns, but it’s also a neat summation of the place in which its characters find itself stuck. Divorced-but-not-over-it Anders is in a constant cycle of having boring, passionless sex with women he charms at lifeless supermarkets while decorating his soulless new condo. Meanwhile, his adult son Preston (Thomas Mann, a canny casting coup, looking exactly like he’s going to grow up into Ben Mendelsohn) is perpetually jobless and gambling and his ex-wife Helene (Edie Falco) is in the steady habit of having to put up with them.
It’s an easy, slow-moving story that takes its time to build its characters and doesn’t overly concern itself with plot. A dip into more melodrama late into the third act isn’t hugely successful, but Holofcener’s confident work earlier on more than makes up for this. She hides a lot of little jokes in the background, and there are some great sight gags. The family dynamics are well drawn, Mann and Falco especially believable as mother and son, and everyone’s Christmas-induced exhaustion means amusingly tired compromises are more common than any clichéd screaming matches.
At the centre of this all is Mendelsohn, who of course is fantastic. He’s funny and pathetic, charming and a dirtbag. You can see Anders desperately trying to make himself feel younger and Mendelsohn illustrates the saddening futility of this superbly. He also does a very fine line in drunk/stoned acting, never overdoing the symptoms, and a scene in which he tries to appear sober to a slightly older parent is just fantastic. Falco is great support in a surprisingly minor role (Mendelsohn and Mann get most of the screen time), as is Connie Britton as fellow divorcee Barbara.
Holofcener’s direction is mainly unfussy and unintrusive, though the opening shot is an absolute corker, and The Land of Steady Habits’s Netflix release doesn’t feel like a cop-out. This is excellent, undemanding Sunday night viewing with a bunch of fun performances at its heart and a sharp sense of humour that keeps it entertaining throughout.