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D: Nicole Holofcener / 98m

Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Edie Falco, Thomas Mann, Bill Camp, Connie Britton, Elizabeth Marvel, Michael Gaston, Charlie Tahan

Anders Hill (Mendelsohn) has turned his back on his life as a husband and father, and his work in finance. Divorced and living in a condo, he’s “retired”, but finding it difficult to make his new life work. Casual (and disappointing) hook-ups with women only remind him of his ex-wife, Helene (Falco), and how much he misses her, and the fact that she’s now seeing someone he used to work with, Donny (Camp), makes it even worse. And their son, Preston (Mann), has graduated from university but seems rootless and unwilling to do anything with his life. When Anders is invited to an annual party given by his friends, the Ashfords (Marvel, Gaston), he’s not expected to actually turn up. But he does, and ends up taking drugs with the Ashfords’ son, Charlie (Tahan). When Charlie ends up in hospital that same night, it’s the beginning of an unexpected if not entirely appropriate friendship, while unresolved issues involving Helene and Preston continue to cause friction between the trio, and have a wider effect on Donny and the Ashfords, as well as a woman Anders meets called Barbara (Britton)…

The first movie directed by Nicole Holofcener that doesn’t feature Catherine Keener in the lead role, The Land of Steady Habits is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ted Thompson. The title refers to the collection of hamlets and towns that dot the Connecticut commuter line, and their similarity to each other. Anders has decided that he no longer wants to be a part of the “rat race”, and that his happiness has been impeded by his job and his marriage and having to be selfless in providing for everyone around him. But Anders is finding that being “free” brings its own set of problems, some that remain from his previous life, and newer ones that add to his woes. It’s clear he’s not happy, and it’s clear that he has no idea of what he’s doing (we first meet him trying to buy ornaments to fill the shelves in his condo; the choices he makes are less than complementary to each other). He wants to retain a connection with Helene but can’t articulate why, while he’s more in tune with Charlie and his issues with his parents than he is with his own son.

All this is handled by Holofcener (who also provides the screenplay) with her customary sincerity and sympathetic approach to each of the characters, and by doing this she manages to avoid making Anders’ story yet another dull tale of an affluent, middle-class man’s mid-life crisis. She’s helped enormously by Mendelsohn’s sensitive and often poignant portrayal of Anders as a man who is at odds with himself and what he needs out of life. Falco is slightly less well served by the material – Helene isn’t given the room to develop as a character – while Mann is terrific as Preston, with rehab in his past and facing an uncertain future. However, the movie is a mixture of drama and comedy that doesn’t always gel convincingly, the relationship between Anders and Charlie is the kind that exists purely in the movies, and there are times when it seems Holofcener has trouble making certain scenes appear relevant. The result is a movie that feels as if it’s holding itself back, and which, despite the cast’s commitment, always seems to be on the verge of saying something profound – without quite knowing just what it is it wants to say.

Rating: 7/10 – a great performance from Mendelsohn ensures The Land of Steady Habits remains watchable throughout, but the patchy material doesn’t always hold up; ultimately it’s a movie that remains likeable even when it’s not living up to its full potential, and it retains a certain charm that is hard to ignore, but a lot will depend on how much emotional dysfunction you can endure – and not just from Anders.