In The Land of Steady Habits, everybody is hopelessly miserable
Standing in a Bed Bath & Beyond, Anders Harris stares at stacks upon stacks of products, collapses his head and sighs. It’s a powerful opening image, simply evoking the sense of malaise that comes with late age and trying to start over. There’s a reason the film The Land of Steady Habits uses the shot for its poster. The only trouble is when the feeling keeps going and there is no escape from this movie of endless misery.
Anders is divorced. His wife, Helene Harris, lives in the home they rebuilt together with another man. She’s been with her lover, Donny O'Connell, for two years, though it's only been six months since Helene and Anders split. Their son, Preston Harris, is reckoning with the damage he’s done to his life, now that he’s 27 years old and out of rehab. The shattered family lives in Connecticut, and it gets worse.
The Harris family is close with the Ashford family. At a party, Sophie Ashford and Helene complain about life, mostly bickering about Spanx. Sophie’s teenage son, Charlie, is outside hiding with friends and smoking a blend of weed and PCP. Anders, drunkenly stumbling through a party he shouldn’t have attended, smokes too. Charlie ends up in the hospital and continues on a downward spiral, while his parents miserably watch it happen.
If Manchester by the Sea was 2016’s defining film of tearful, east coast, white, American misery, then The Land of Steady Habits is making a strong case for being 2018’s, if only with less obvious moments of tears. Instead, characters stare off into the distance, or Anders gets insulted — deservingly — over and over. It’s memorable when Preston refers to Anders’ Christmas decorations outside of his condo as his father’s own “sad, little Christmas parade,” but the film just keeps piling it on.
There is no hope. There is little reprieve. Things fall apart and people continue to feel a great sense of uneasiness, exhausted as they are by their lives and watching everything they’ve built come crashing down. Malaise is the defining word of Nicole Holofcener’s film, a miserable work that continues miserably with no happy ending in sight.
Stories should fluctuate. They need change and development, and things generally should look different at the end than they did at the beginning.The graphic depiction of The Land of Steady Habits’ emotional journey would be a flat line. Every bit of further despair is only a confirmation of what the viewer could pick up on fairly quickly; this is a sad movie full of sad people, from beginning to end.
Sure, the film looks nice. Ben Mendelsohn is able to be the emotional punching bag he needs to be as Anders, Thomas Mann pouts remarkably as Preston and Edie Falco has a strong presence of disdain as Helene. But there just seems to be no point in celebrating anything in this miserable mess of nondevelopment, where things change, but everything still feels like stasis.
Each of the 98 minutes in the film’s runtime drag on. The Land of Steady Habits, a Netflix release, would be better off not added to the queue of anybody who hopes for more than one emotion.
In one scene of note, Donny visits Anders. The latter brought home a pie of pizza for himself and munches on slices out of the box. Donny offers to buy Anders’ old home from him — Anders hasn’t paid the mortgage in six months. Of course, Anders, short on money, is too proud. He asks about a ribbon Donny is wearing. Of course, it’s for breast cancer and, of course, Donny’s sister died of the disease.
The steadiest habit is to find misery wherever it can fit, unendingly.