Directed by Nicole Holofcener
Anders Hill (Ben Mendelsohn) suffers quietly in The Land of Steady Habits. By the time we meet him wandering cluelessly through Bed, Bath & Beyond (or is it Pottery Barn?) he has already divorced his wife, Helene (Edie Falco) and quite his job in finance for an early retirement. “You are the one who wanted out, so get out,” she will say to him, and that is basically the movie in a nutshell.
Anders lives in a modest but melancholic little condo that he over-dresses for the upcoming Christmas holiday he is sure to spend alone. He lives not far from the large house he once shared with Helene whom he is unnerved to learn is in a relationship with one of his former peers, Donny (Bill Camp). Later Donny will offer to officially buy the house, which Anders offered to pay for but can no longer afford.
The decision Anders makes, to get divorced and quit his job, is either the work of someone enlightened or completely lost. Despite his supposed, sudden freedom, Anders is tight on money and mostly ever alone. He will conduct a couple one night stands over the film’s opening ten minutes, but the first time we see him intimate with a character we’ve actually come to know, Barbara (Connie Britton), he reveals himself to be a miserable, asshole of a person, making clear what other characters and circumstances have long implied.
It’s not just Anders who has work to do, however. His son, Preston (Thomas Mann) is 27, still lives at home and struggles to hold down a job. He successfully completed rehab but long enough go that his ongoing sobriety isn’t notable on its own. After he loses the money of one of his mother’s clients, she kicks him out of the house. He then turns to Anders, perhaps appealing to their shared sense of inadequacy, but even Anders refuses to let him crash on the couch, choosing instead an example of harsh love.
Maybe Preston is simply following Anders’ unconscious example, but neither of them could say exactly that’s what’s going on. Their common struggles only alienate them from each other, at least until a particular plot point brings them together.
Anders’ only real friend in the film is Charlie (Charlie Tahan), the teenaged son of a family friend. One night they get high together, with Anders unwittingly smoking PCP. Then they bond because they both feel like outsiders. Anders admits he never much cared for the people in this community, especially Charlie’s parents. Being just the right age, Charlie is excited with any adult who rejects the same things he rejects, and thus they begin a quiet, brief friendship as Charlie tries to run away from home.
The Land of Steady Habits might feel like just another Lifetime channel movie, but it does go to a dark, uncompromising place. Characters’ shortcomings are made clear, and they’re forced to account for them, particularly Anders. This all leads to one of the more uncomfortable dinner table scenes I’ve seen in a long time, a wonderfully tense scene, but one which I think ends far too early. That might seem like an odd complaint, but I feel as though the scene exposes all of Anders’ dark, dirty secrets but then wraps a bow on it much too easily.
He is punished, in a way, for some of his behavior, but this punishment lands him in the hospital where Helene and Preston eagerly wait for him to get better. While there is no forthcoming marital reunion, this does offer an intended catharsis to the strained relationships between Anders and his wife and child. The movie will then end with him on a date with Barbara, reigniting the relationship that we were led to believe had stalled.
It’s much too cheerful and neat of an ending to something much darker and messy. This resolution is sudden and seems to ignore everything that dinner table scene brought up. It’s in that scene we also learn that Helene’s relationship with Donny had begun before she and Anders divorced, a new and (I think) unnecessary development which maybe helps us sympathize with Anders even though very little he has done throughout the film suggests we should.
Up Next: The Final Girls (2015), 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), Smokey and the Bandit (1977)