Too Good, Too Smart for an “Obvious” Pun
Earlier this year, I reviewed Bad Words, a crude, ugly and painfully unfunny movie about a fourty-something genius who attacks a spelling bee. My review was less than kind, so negative that I had to explain how much I enjoy offensive humor. Growing up, my comedy icons were Jim Norton, Louie CK and Opie and Anthony. While I feel challenging the status quo through off color humor is socially important, when it’s done for no reason, the value gets lost. Luckily, one film this year did it right. Obvious Child, the debut feature film from Gillian Robespierre, handles a touchy, uncomfortable topic with wit, humor and a scene stealing performance from SNL alum Jenny Slate.
Slate plays Donna Stern, a struggling comedienne eking out a career in the Brooklyn stand up scene. After a nightmare Valentine’s Day where her boyfriend dumps her for a Barbie doll and her job goes down the tubes, Stern has herself a drunken tryst with Max (Jake Lacy). What starts as wonderful, one night distraction becomes serious when she discovers she’s pregnant with Max’s baby. Hell bent on going through with an abortion, Donna learns a lesson about determination and following one’s heart through the strength and support of the people around her.
In the role of Donna, Jenny Slate channels a young Tina Fey in her delivery and comic timing. On stage, she’s brilliantly funny, delivering set after set of filthy yet refreshingly honest humor. Even when she’s bombing, she’s still joy to watch. When she’s not making people laugh, Slate delivers an honest portrayal of an artist in her late twenties making her way in the big city. From slinging jokes to connecting with her mother (Nancy Stern) and hanging with her Brooklyn friends, Slate turns in a performance on par with the Kristen Wiggs and Amy Pohlers of the comedy acting world.
In directing her first feature film, director Gillian Robespierre provides Slate with a stage full of New York authenticity. Modern day Brooklyn is alive with culture and Robespierre draws deep from that well to create an honest look into the real world of New York show business, almost to a fault. As somebody who recently moved from NYC to Austin, I instantly connected with the region specific cast but non native viewers may find it difficult to relate to. People who still use the term “hipster” as a negative may gag at Donna’s circle of artsy friends, but Slate’s grounded performance balances out any moments of being too cool for the room.
The story itself has been a source of controversy and while the idea of a woman actively choosing a controlled abortion may be upsetting to some people, the manner in which she does it bursts with realism. Every scene of Donna being disinterested and clinical around her friends is balanced with emotional moments. The subject of her choice isn’t nearly as interesting as her reactions to it, which gives a potentially off putting storyline meat and value.
The script itself is solid enough and despite some filler, manages to skirt romantic comedy conventions with new and original ideas. While moments like an after show hang out with friends feel more like sketches than story progression, the focus is on always on character development, which gives Slate more than enough material to work her magic.
Cringe comedy only works when there’s a craft behind it and unlike Jason Batemans early year stinker, Obvious Child provides a strong character driven story to compliment the laughter. By delving into the uncomfortable topic of a young woman compelled to do what her heart tells her, in both her career and personal life, Gillian Robespierre asks difficult questions and gets honest answers. Built on the back of an outstanding performance by Jenny Slate and guided by a script brimming with integrity and authenticity, Obvious Child is a shining example of what summer rom coms ought to be.
Score: 8.5 out of 10