There’s a lot to appreciate, but not a lot to love in Gillian Robespierre’s directorial debut.
There’s a story, famously recounted in Tina Fey’s comic autobiography, Bossypants, about a read-through at Saturday Night Live when Amy Poehler was new to the cast. Waiting for the read-through to start, Poehler and another cast member were engaged in a comedy-bit exchange that ultimately turned vulgar and, as Fey describes it, “unladylike.” When Jimmy Fallon turned squeamish and contended that the bit wasn’t cute and that he didn’t like it, Poehler simply paused the bit, turned to Fallon and retorted “I don’t f-ing care if you like it” before continuing the bit just as loud and blue as before.
In a lot of ways I feel that’s an accurate parallel of the mindset behind Obvious Child. The film is the directorial debut for Gillian Robespierre and stars Jenny Slate, herself an SNL alum famous for accidentally dropping an F-bomb of her own on the air. Together they’ve made a film utterly unconcerned with maintaining the feminine mystique. Slate plays Donna, an aspiring comedian struggling to make her bones performing sets detailing her life. All the aspects of her life. Donna’s confessional set includes stories about farts, underwear stains, details of sexual encounters and plenty of other “unladylike” material. The indecent exposure doesn’t phase Donna, and she doesn’t care if it’s cute as long as it gets a laugh. And she (and by extension, Robespierre) certainly doesn’t care if you f-ing like it.
The one person it does bother is Donna’s boyfriend, Ryan (Paul Briganti), who, tired of having his personal life revealed on the microphone, breaks up with her after a set. Donna is distraught. Over the next week she meanders through a boozy existence, commiserating with friends and urged by her parents to make something of her life. When Donna drunkenly bombs a set, she seeks refuge in Max (Jake Lacy, season 9 of The Office’s Pete), a friendly, handsome guy who (mercifully) arrived too late to see the set. A night of jokes and booze ends in a one-night stand, and a few weeks later Donna discovers she’s pregnant by a man she barely knows.
This, in itself, isn’t new territory for a film. The obvious parallel is to Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, and the films do share some common themes. But whereas Knocked Up and other big studio films always seem to shy away from the abortion option, Apatow’s film fearing to even say the word and subbing in “schma-smortion” instead, Obvious Child is unafraid to address the issue. Donna knows ending the pregnancy is the right choice for her, and the film makes no effort playing scared and pretending otherwise. Robespierre doesn’t waste time with will-she/won’t-she plot waffling. Instead, Donna’s big decision is whether she’ll reveal the pregnancy to the suddenly reappeared Max who’s eager to kindle a relationship.
The two couldn’t appear more different as Max is seemingly everything Donna isn’t. Even excluding the pregnancy, Donna’s life is a mess of profanity, lost jobs, and alcohol. Max is a polite, almost shy, seemingly well-put-together young man. He’s always dressed professionally whereas Donna always seems to be wearing what she found on the floor that didn’t stink. It’s the contrast between the two, and how they come together while Donna juggles her secret that’s really the heart of the film. Unfortunately, the film was saddled as an “abortion romantic-comedy,” a regrettable tag that both stirs needless controversy and underplays the film’s mature honesty. Max and Donna may be opposites, but their connection is genuine. It’s obvious that he admires the honesty and quick wit that hides behind Donna’s dirty jokes, and she loves his almost folksy level of politeness. When they have a meal together he warms the butter packet for her bread between his palms without a second thought. Max isn’t adhering to chivalry merely to offer the audience an alternative to Donna. He’s treating a woman the way he thinks is right, and that’s just the way it is. The unspoken pressure on their relationship adds some beautifully touching moments to the film, and it’s these moments when the film is at its best.
Obvious Child is a mature take on a sensitive issue, and much of the thanks goes to Robespierre who is smart and deft enough to deal with abortion without shoving an agenda down anyone’s throat. This isn’t a message movie, and Robespierre and Slate aren’t interested in converting anyone. Their concern is to tell these characters’ stories honestly, and, like it or not, the reality is that abortion is a legitimate and legal option in this country. That said, anyone with a weak stomach for this issue probably didn’t make it past the opening credits which are intermixed with one of Donna’s crude comedy sets.
Unfortunately, even at 83 minutes the film feels too long. One subplot involving David Cross as an older, slightly more established comedian could be cut completely, and some of the attempts at comedy just don’t work. Ultimately, the film is neither funny enough nor emotionally satisfying enough to achieve greatness. And here’s the rub: I hate having to admit that I don’t love the film. There are many things to love here, but Obvious Child just doesn’t combine its many great parts into a great film. It wouldn’t be wrong to view it as a hybrid of the previously mentioned Knocked Up and another Apatow film, Funny People, told from a feminist perspective. But where I never cringed at the vulgarity of those films, I couldn’t help but recoil a little bit at Obvious Child. I know how bad that sounds, and it pains me to say it. I’m sure Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would have something to add on the matter. Even if the film isn’t a complete success, I admire it enough to follow the future efforts of its stars and director. Obvious Child isn’t a star-making turn for Slate, Lacy or Robespierre, but it’s a good launch pad for all three. I hope they (ahem) deliver something great.