Review: ‘Obvious Child’ teases the comedy out of the human condition
I think we need a new movie genre dubbed “Girls” for films echoing the vision articulated so well by Lena Dunham in her tart HBO comedy about single, young females in the city trying to figure themselves out. Life is awkward, emotions are unfiltered, it all unfolds with a raw, R-rated edge.
That kind of truth-telling anchors Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child,” a quirky romantic comedy starring the very funny Jenny Slate. It is an affable addition to the growing sisterhood of films with that awkward female factor, including 2012’s “Frances Ha,” starring a charmingly hapless Greta Gerwig, and the West Coast/middle-age version, 2013’s “Enough Said,” with the delightful fumblings of Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
On the surface, “Obvious Child” is about a few weeks in the life of aspiring stand-up comic Donna Stern. “Obvious” follows Donna’s emotional journey from romance, to breakup, to one-night stand, to unexpected pregnancy, to romance, to abortion — much of which is mined for laughs in her confessional-style late-night routines.
Written and directed by Robespierre, “Obvious Child” uses Donna’s revelations about her personal life — from sex to hygiene — to work through a range of personal issues. Abortion may be the big one, but it is not the only one. Her relationship status — with guys, friends, parents and career — take up a lot of space too.
Manhattan for “Girls"-era women like Donna is a very particular place, with its own behavioral codes and clichés. Robespierre captures the ethos of it in this deceptively understated feature film debut. The stand-up scenes are not hysterically funny; they reveal the nervous energy you feel in the crowd and in the comic when especially intimate details are shared. Slate delivers Robespierre’s casual dialogue with such self-deprecating charm that even a graphic description of the state of her underwear at the end of a day is weirdly entertaining.
The more serious story lying under the surface deals with the pangs of early adulthood. In all things personal and romantic, Donna’s hand-wringing is endless; indeed, it comprises the bulk of her existence. Yet it feels less like rhetoric, more like reality as Slate imbues it with the unpretentious narcissism of a precocious, adored, socially conscious only child. That authenticity helps make up for some of the film’s fits and starts.
The film is shot on a typical indie budget in and around New York, and the city helps the cause. The clever crew feeds off the energy of a place always in motion to match a life always in motion, led by cinematographer Chris Teague, production designer Sara K. White and costume designer Evren Catlin. Composer Chris Bordeaux has ginned up an eclectic musical mash-up in the score.
Donna is surrounded by the typical young adult safety net: Parents — hers are divorced and delightful: Dad Jacob (Richard Kind) is the more nurturing sort, Mom Nancy (Polly Draper) the more demanding. Friends are her quasi-family: Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), the one with good advice; fellow stand-up Joey (Gabe Liedman), responsible for unconditional support (Liedman is Slate’s real-life comedy partner). David Cross shows up for a quick turn as an older stand-up friend/lech named Sam.
As the film opens, Donna is delving into her deteriorating romantic relationship in front of an appreciative crowd as her boyfriend grimaces near the back of the club. Within a few scenes, her life has unraveled. The breakup with that boyfriend has left her painfully unmoored, since the other woman in his life was her best friend. Her paying job at an independent bookstore is disappearing along with the store. Her parents — in their own “we’re worried about you” way — are piling on too.
What better way to temporarily avoid the pressure than a night at a bar, followed by a fling with a stranger. Max (Jake Lacy) is a good-looking professional type, very unlike the arty-angsty bad boys Donna is usually drawn to. When he turns up a few weeks later and turns out to be far more interesting than she anticipates, that’s just a complication in her increasingly complicated life. The film settles in to follow the truth and consequences of their one-night stand.
This might not sound like a laughing matter, but the filmmaker knows how to tease the comedy out of the human condition. She’s also got the perfect stage in stand-up, where the best use their own personal tragedies and mistakes for laughs.
Fortunately, Donna’s mess is perfect for Slate, an actress who seems to thrive any time the action leaves her twisting in the wind. She’s been the butt of bad situations in Showtime’s “House of Lies,” HBO’s “Hello Ladies,” NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and during her run early on at “Saturday Night Live.” Lacy, probably best known as Pete on the final season of “The Office,” is a solid counterpoint to Slate’s flighty, fidgety style.
As “Obvious Child” stumbles its way to the final punch line, it echoes Donna’s onstage musings — funny but rough around the edges. A work in progress that somehow hooks you anyway.
MPAA rating: R for language and sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark Theatres, West Los Angeles
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