Writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s independent romantic comedy has been praised as a welcome relief from contrived, cliché-ridden Hollywood examples of the genre, not least because it serves as an acting calling-card for stand-up comic Jenny Slate and treats the subject of abortion in a matter-of-fact fashion. In reality, however, the New York-based “Obvious Child” is as conventional as its bigger California cousins in so many ways that except for its raggedy look it’s virtually indistinguishable from them.
Slate, not straying very far from her off-screen persona, plays Donna Stern, an aspiring stand-up star whose routine focuses on the travails of women—physiological and emotional—often resorting to humor based on her own experiences, including lots of gags about bodily functions. Her long-time boyfriend Ryan (Paul Briganti), tired of jokes at his expense (and involved with another girl anyway), announces that he’s dumping her, which sends Donna into a funk. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s about to lose her day job when the used book store where she works closes. But instead of sitting down to watch a weepy romcom on her TV with a half-gallon of ice cream at the ready, she gets drunk and leaves an avalanche of alternately pleading and excoriating messages on her ex’s voicemail. Friends like her BFF Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) and the inevitable gay buddy Joey (Gabe Liedman), as well as her divorced parents—puppeteer dad Jacob (Richard Kind) and teacher mom Nancy (Polly Draper)—try to help, but Donna’s inconsolable. She stakes out the new girlfriend’s place for a glimpse of the couple and broadcasts her troubles in a stand-up session that’s pretty disastrous.
Fortunately Donna quickly meets a “good guy”—Max (Jake Lacy)—who comes into the club where she performs and charms her with his square, wide-eyed enthusiasm. He’s a one-night stand, but that results in Donna getting pregnant. And though he looks her up again, she’s not certain whether to link up with him. (Coincidentally, he happens to be a student of his mother—rather hard to swallow, too.) Meanwhile she has to address the question of her pregnancy—and without a great deal of debate or consideration, decides to have an abortion. It’s the ease with which she reaches this decision and the lack of any counter-argument to it (even Max will blithely go along with it, accompanying her to the clinic and returning from the procedure with her so that they can watch television together afterward) that many have taken as a sign of the film’s maturity. But actually it seems a sort of cop-out, simply ignoring that the choice is a difficult one for any woman; and treating it cavalierly, as “Obvious Child” does, robs the film of depth (as well as humor, since at best the last third of the film is merely sweet). Even “Knocked Up,” for all its flaws, didn’t skirt the issue so completely, and “Citizen Ruth” showed that a filmmaker of courage and vision could wring amusement from it, even if the laughter had a bitter edge. Robespierre and Slate remove the bitterness from the equation, but they’ve largely excised the laughter along with it.
There are occasional bright moments in “Obvious Child” that suggest that Robespierre has potential, and though Slate’s abrasiveness might seem an obstacle to her advancement to stardom, it certainly hasn’t deterred Melissa McCarthy’s ascent (although, to be sure, Slate lacks her heft). Hoffman makes a nice impression in a role that offers limited opportunities, and it’s good to see Draper again. The male characters, on the other hand, are as sketchily drawn as the female ones are in most Hollywood movies. Lacy brings a bland pleasantness to Max, but the character allows for little more, and the same can be said of Liedman’s Joey and Kind’s Jacob. In fact the most compelling male character is probably Sam, the lecherous older colleague played by David Cross who invites Donna back to his sleazy flat. He’s a repulsive guy, but at least he has some edge to him—unlike Lacy’s Max, who frankly comes across as too good to be true.
On the technical side “Obvious Child” is what one would expect of a modestly-budgeted indie: it looks more than a little shabby, but one supposes that’s meant to reflect the lives of the characters, and certainly one shouldn’t blame cinematographer, production designer Sara K. White or their colleagues for the result. Certainly set decorator Ramsey Scott and costume designer Evren Catlin get the look right, though it’s hardly a very attractive one—and the New York locations don’t hurt, either.
One appreciates the scrappy ambition of “Obvious Child,” which is based on a short written by Robespierre, Anna Bean and Karen Maine. A pity that the result doesn’t justify its expansion to feature length.