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Non-Review Review: The Land of Steady Habits

“You’re mean,” observes a potential romantic partner of Anders Hill, around the halfway point of The Land of Steady Habits.

It would be reductive to suggest that this is the most bracing or cutting piece of character work in The Land of Steady Habits, but it is not entirely unfair. The Land of Steady Habits is very much a story of upper-class social anxiety, of wealthy characters without any real problems in their lives who instead fixate on the kinds of problems that less well-off people probably wish that they had. Anders Hill is a prime example. A solemn and depressive figure who has become alienated from his previously idyllic existence, Anders is a character who is entirely responsible for his current predicament.

Going steady.

In some ways, this is very typical of the work of writer and director Nicole Holofcener, who has adapted The Land of Steady Habits from a novel by Ted Thompson. The film’s status as an adaptation accounts for some of the details that distinguish the film from Holofcener’s other work, most notably the focus on a male (rather than a female) protagonist, but The Land of Steady Habits is very much of a piece with Holofcener’s other work. It is a wry and acerbic study of people who have everything except what they actually need, and who stumble around causing emotional carnage while looking for that something.

With that in mind, Holofcener’s films live and die based on the charm of the leading characters – on how much the audience is drawn into the hollow void at the centre of their existence. By that measure, The Land of Steady Habits is a mixed bag at best. Ben Mendelsohn is great as the pathetic and contemptible Anders Hill, an impotent affluent man-child who seems capable of mustering charm for only a few scarce minutes at a time. However, Anders himself is not anybody that it seems particularly interesting or exciting to spend ninety-eight minutes with.

Sofa, so good.

Conceptually, Anders is a vaguely interesting creation, a slightly novel twist on the familiar archetype of wealthy and listless protagonists who tend to populate indie dramas and romantic comedies. Anders is a man going through a messy divorce that tore his family apart, one motivated by something approaching a midlife crisis. That midlife crisis also manifests itself in a variety of other ways; the decision to quit his high-paying job and move to the suburbs, his recurring fascination with taking drugs with minors, and a not-insubstantial investment in festive decorations outside his new condo.

To be fair, it would be churlish to criticise a film like The Land of Steady Habits for merely focusing on wealth and affluence. After all, the romantic comedy genre is fixated on characters who live lavish and materialist lifestyles. Wealth is a simply a state of being for the protagonists of Nancy Meyers films like Home Again or It’s Complicated, or even smash hits like Crazy Rich Asians. There is nothing inherently wrong with the portrayal of wealth on screen. After all, there is something deeply fascinating in the kind of lives that these wealthy and successful people live, and the window that films like this open up into that world.

Aisle be there.

Even outside of the portrayal of wealth as a form as aspirational escapism, a sort of capitalist superhero fantasy where money is a superpower, there are engaging ways to tell stories about money and the influence that it has on people. These stories don’t have to be didactic or overt like Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short, or even gangster stories like Goodfellas or Casino. It is possible to tell engaging stories about wealthy people that focus on their wealth without seeming trite or condescending. (The Great Gatsby is a defining American story for this exact reason.)

The issue with films like The Land of Steady Habits is that they rarely delve beyond the idea that unhappy people with money are still unhappy, demanding the audience pity these characters for struggling to navigate crises entirely of their own making. The Land of Steady Habits is the story of a middle-aged man who is struggling with retirement and divorce, both of which were a direct result of his own choices. Anders Hill chose to retire early and has chosen not to pursue anything that actually interests him. By the start of The Land of Steady Habits, he has chosen to wander the aisles of Bed, Bath and Beyond looking at towels.

Father of the year.
Incidentally, Father of the Year is a much better film.

The divorce that causes Anders so much frustration during the movie was entirely his own choice. It was a decision that he made and that he forced on the people around him, including his listless and unfocused son. “You’re the one who threw everything away,” Sophie Ashford tells Anders at one point in the film, an observation that is treated as a massive revelation, but has been fairly self-evident to any half-attentive viewer for more than thirty minutes at that point. Anders Hill is a character who makes poor choices, despite being smart enough to recognise them as bad choices, and often knowing they are bad choices.

To be fair, there are repeated hints that Anders might have a rich inner life, a lot of which come from the performance of Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn has a wonderful knack for playing deeply flawed and pitiable characters with just enough self-awareness to understand that they are complete failures by any measure, but without the self-awareness to take ownership of their failings. Mendelsohn plays Anders a human being who is capable of approximating empathy and understanding in any given moment, while repeatedly challenging the audience as to whether he is capable of those things of themselves.

The Hill he wants to die on.

There is some of this to be found in Holofcener’s script. The Land of Steady Habits repeatedly suggests that Anders lacks any real understanding of his own internal psychology, even if he’s smart enough to identify what the bad choice is in a given situation before he makes it. Repeatedly over the course of the film, various characters ask Anders why he would do any of the things that he did, why he would choose to give up a high-paying job in the city for a life of suburban malaise.

“You’re a relatively young guy, why get out so early?” an old friend asks at a party early in the film. “It’s a system of monstrous greed,” Anders offers by way of explanation, delivered with all the conviction of somebody reading a cue card. Later at the same party, he is asked the question again. “I couldn’t go on doing what I was doing to make a living and feel good about myself,” he states. It seems likely that his desire to “feel good about [himself]” is the bigger motivator. He blushes slightly when he’s suggested to be a counter-cultural hero sticking it to the man. He awkwardly mumbles, “There were a lot of other things.”

Bad habits.

There’s something slightly interesting in how completely self-centred and oblivious Anders is to his own insecurities. He repeatedly seems disappointed that he isn’t the most important person in the lives of his family, likening his social network to a web with himself at the centre. He reflects at one point that he almost hoped that the web would fall to pieces without him, so that the others might be forced to acknowledge his importance. Instead, he laments, “The web just remakes itself. It carries on without you.” Anders is such a self-centred and oblivious idiot that his repeated self-sabotage almost generates pity. Almost.

The simple problem with The Land of Steady Habits is that for all that Anders is a mystery to himself, he’s incredibly transparent to the audience. Anders is a character who makes poor choices despite the fact that he knows that they are poor choices and despite the fact that the people around him know tell him that they are poor choices. He doesn’t understand why he does this, but they audience recognises it as a result of an arrested development coupled with a midlife crisis. More to the point, none of his bad choices are particularly interesting and he shows no real interest in trying to make better choices.

Meddlin’ Mendelsohn.

Despite Mendelsohn’s good work in the role, The Land of Steady Habits arguably works best when it focuses on how that web is carrying on without Anders, when it looks at characters with slightly more self-awareness and slightly stronger yearnings than its protagonist. The teenage characters in The Land of Steady Habits are much more interesting than the adults. They are more engaging than him in the scenes that they share, and much more compelling the scenes that they share with the other adults in the story. Repeatedly, it seems like the web might be better off without Anders, even if the audience is stuck with him.

The Land of Steady Habits does expound a bit beyond the observation that Anders Hill is mean, elaborating that he’s also an idiot. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make him a particularly engaging character with whom to spend an hour and a half.

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