At its best, the land of writer-director Nicole Holofcener is a sly and invigorating place — wittier than life, full of human surprise, grounded in the ways that happiness and heartache dance together. Her movies can be deceptively light, but she crafts each one with acerbic affection, and in a highly personal and selective way. (She has made just six features, starting with “Walking and Talking” in 1996.) It’s my feeling, too, that she has only grown as an artist. “Friends with Money” (2006) presented a slew of characters so weirdly sympathetic in their middle-class avarice that they popped off screen, and in “Enough Said” (2013), Holofcener figured out how to do what no previous filmmaker had: She got James Gandolfini to give a marvelous performance that shed any last vestige of his Tony Soprano aura.
Holofcener’s new movie, “The Land of Steady Habits,” is the first one she has made based on material that she didn’t originate herself. You can see why: When she read Ted Thompson’s 2014 novel, she must have thought it played just like one of her films. The movie is set in upscale suburban Connecticut (the title is an old nickname for that sedately moneyed place), and it’s rooted in feelings of loss, yet the characters are rarely at a loss for a puckish rejoinder. That syncs right up with the Holofcener touch. In theory, “The Land of Steady Habits” should be another of her impeccably cut slices of life.
Yet no matter how much you want to like the film, something is missing: a spark, a shimmer, a thrust of discovery. The central character, Anders Hill (Ben Mendelsohn), is a long-time resident of his wealthy community who recently left his wife, Helene (Edie Falco), and quit his job in finance. Between divorce and early retirement, he’s starting over, and totally by choice. His impulse was to ditch the rat race and, along with it, the dulling comfort of his marriage.
Years ago, we might have called “The Land of Steady Habits” a mid-life-crisis movie. Except the soft hook of this story is that Anders has no crisis. He has moved into a spacious cookie-cutter condo that he’s decorated quite tastefully, and he’s living the life he chooses: picking up a woman during an afternoon jaunt to Bed Bath & Beyond, doing what he wants to do just when he wants to do it. Yet none of this means anything to him. He’s not liberated — he’s stuck. He’s walking in place. And so is the movie.
The Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, from “Animal Kingdom” and “Killing Them Softly,” is hangdog handsome, and quite fit (if you’re going to be a middle-aged divorced loser, it helps to look as good as Anders does). In “The Land of Steady Habits,” Mendelsohn speaks in a gravelly voice with a slight lisp — he’s like Gary Oldman playing Spalding Gray. The film is set at Christmas time, during which Anders rambles around town, trying to find his new place in it, only to realize that he doesn’t have one. He’s become an afterthought, and his hedonistic “adventures” give him little pleasure. It seems that he can seduce any middle-aged divorced woman he wants, yet once he’s in bed he finds it harder and harder to perform. The movie never analyzes his problem (and, thank God, it spares us Viagra jokes), but the implication is: He’s a case of impotence from apathy.
But how invested can we be in a hero who’s bored by everything, including the freedom he covets? “The Land of Steady Habits” is what it would look like if John Cheever wrote a sitcom. We can see why Anders’ life as a lonely single man, after 30-plus years or marriage, wouldn’t measure up to his dreams of liberation. The trouble is, he responds to that situation by acting like a pill, and without displaying a trace of honest melancholy (or rage). It’s possible to make a good film about an uningratiating person, but it’s not so much that we dislike Anders as that he comes off as a trivial blithe jerk. He’s reflexively dismissive of everything, including his own predicament, and Mendelsohn’s mopey performance keeps the character at arm’s length in a way that starts to seem like a tic.
Edie Falco, as the abandoned Helene (who Anders, of course, keeps winding his way back to), acts with all the righteous pluck you’d expect, but the movie isn’t about why their marriage ended; we never even learn what happened (not really). It’s about Anders acting out his troubles through his relationships with two young men: Preston (Thomas Mann), his 27-year-old son, who in all his wayward slacker neediness remains a naggingly remote character, and Charlie (Charlie Tahan), the teenage son of his old friends, who gives Anders a bong of dope laced with angel dust during their Christmas party. We’re supposed to chuckle at how inappropriate that is — a man sharing drugs with his neighbors’ kid — but after Charlie passes out at the party and has to be taken to the hospital, the two become “friends.” Their relationship is supposed to be some sort of metaphor for Anders’ regression, but Holofcener’s ear fails her when it comes to bringing Charlie the dissolute stoner to life.
“The Land of Steady Habits” turns on an issue of real estate. Anders, in the divorce settlement, gave Helene their home (a rustic beauty perched near the water), but he’s retained the deed and is supposed to be paying the mortgage, which he can’t afford to do. (He hasn’t paid it for six months.) He keeps circling back there, only to learn that Helene has a new boyfriend (Bill Camp), someone Anders has known since his days as a young stock trader. His house, and his life, have been taken over, but only because he gave them up. Then he gets bailed out, and generously. No wonder “The Land of Steady Habits” drags along, becoming the rare Nicole Holofcener film that feels less than vital. It’s the story of a man overcoming white people problems entirely of his own devising.