In her sixth feature film, director Nicole Holofcener has brought to the screen an engaging midlife drama of humor and heartache, angst and disappointment, loneliness and guilt. It is based on a novel of the same title by Ted Thompson and is set in the Westport, Connecticut, a posh suburb full of people who commute to work into New York City.
Anders Hill (Ben Mendelsohn), who has had a successful career in finance, has taken early retirement, divorced his wife, and moved into a small apartment in town. He is proud of himself for having walked away from allegiance to a "system of monstrous greed." But the freedom and contentment he imagined would be his has mysteriously eluded him. Anders is baffled when he finds himself in places like a Bed, Bath & Beyond store, wandering absent-mindedly down the aisles amidst a vast display of bath towels.
We can easily imagine a few of the questions which are pestering him: What is the point of having so many things? Do I really need these towels? What is that for?
As a conflicted and confused man, Anders is in good company when it comes to trying to make sense of the malaise of middle age. The poet W. H. Auden wrote about this stage of life as "a case of chaos, a constituted/famine of effect." Is it only a limbo between youth and old age? John Updike's poem "Midpoint" refers to middle age as "too blue for words" but then states in the same breath, "I've grown to love it here." For those who have both the leisure and the interest, middle age can be the perfect time for monitoring past and future, sizing up one's mistakes and potentials. In a lighter vein, there is Franklin P. Adams's definition of this stage of life as "a time when you are too young to take up golf and too old to rush up to the net."
Relationships in middle age can be particularly challenging, given the history embedded in many of them. Anders and his ex-wife, Helene (Edie Falco), can't connect anymore around pleasant experiences they've shared; she is about to marry her lover, Donny (Bill Camp), who has moved in with her.
Anders' twenty-something son Preston (Thomas Mann) lives with his mom and gives his dad a hard time about such things as his over-the-top Christmas decorating. Anders worries about Preston's future given the fact that he has dropped out of college and is now working as a delivery boy.
One night after getting drunk, Anders takes a cab to his old address and wanders into the house. He grabs a popsicle from the refrigerator and looks through a family photograph album. When Helene, Donny, and Preston discover him, they read him the riot act. He is especially taken aback by Preston's anger toward him for walking out on the family.
His best friend Larry (Josh Pais), a friend and fellow retiree, tries to pull Anders out of his funk, talking about dating and cooking classes. After drinking together in a bar, they drive to a train parking lot where they watch the commuters exiting and going to waiting cars. "Do you miss that?" says Larry to Anders.
Given his failure in relating to his ex-wife and his angry son, this middle ager begins a romantic relationship with Barbara (Connie Britton). After performing poorly while having sex with her, Anders picks up the self-help book on her nightstand titled Live Your Best Life Today.
"What is it with you women and these book?" he asks.
She responds angrily, "Are you in my bed making fun of my book?"
Quickly ashamed, he responds, "I'm sorry. You deserve your best life today."
"I know," she says, their time together clearly put in jeopardy. "That's why I brought the book."
With The Land of Steady Habits, writer and director Nicole Holofcener proves herself to be an inventive and soulful explorer of both middle age and the bubble of suburban America. Her perspective reminds us of the fiction of John Updike and John Cheever. Like the novelists, she captures and vividly conveys the losses and the disappointments of failed marriages and change-plagued lives.
While trying to escape the boring adults at an annual party thrown at the luxurious home of some of his successful neighbors, Anders stumbles upon a small band of teenagers in a corner of the yard. Their leader is Charlie (Charlie Tahan) who convinces Anders to smoke some angel dust. When the boy is hospitalized for an overdose, he visits him and gives him a book. Later, Charlie shows up at Anders' apartment with an odd request: Will he take care of his pet turtle?
In the Native American tradition, there is "medicine" associated with the Turtle. Turtles travel close to the earth. They are steady in their movements and persistent as they seek sustenance. They teach us to soak in the Earth's nurturing, healing love. This is exactly what Anders needs.