Wednesday, June 18, 2014

OBVIOUS CHILD Is Vital, Fresh, Winning Comedy


- Obvious Child is a genuine surprise. It's a must-see for comedy fans - one of the funniest films in a long while. And really, to me, that's reason enough to run out and see it. But, there's so much more to like about this one. It's a female-written, female-directed, female-starring comedy. And that is awesome. As a comedy fan, I look at it this way: what we're getting here is a movie that's not only funny, but funny in a particular way that we don't typically see at the movies. It's got a unique voice - that of writer/director Gillian Robespierre. I was lucky enough to see a screening of the film that was followed by a Q&A with Robespierre and star Jenny Slate, and Robespierre is clearly one to watch. She's smart, sassy, and just plain funny. And now, I can't wait to see what she does next.

OBVIOUS CHILD is sort of self-mockingly billed as an "abortion comedy," but the fact is that it happens to be a very funny-yet-sweet look at a young woman dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. The rom-com twist is that, as it turns out, the guy whom she had a drunken one night stand with may actually be a great match -- if only the relationship between the two hadn't gotten off to such an awkward and life-altering, consequence-bearing start. The young woman is played by one-time SNL cast member Jenny Slate, who was infamously booted from the show in her first season, after accidentally dropping an f-bomb on live TV. Since then, Slate has found success in animation, with her own webseries, and as a recurring guest star on shows like Parks and Recreation and Hello Ladies. But this is Slate's big breakout role, no question. As the film's protagonist, Donna, Slate plays arguably a version of herself - a twenty-something woman living in New York, struggling to make a living while doing stand-up gigs at a divey bar. Slate is fantastic in the film. Her comic timing is amazing, but there's also a realness and even a darkness to the character that's appealing and keeps things feeling grounded. Through Donna's stand-up, we see her pour out her frustrations in a way that she can't in the rest of her life, and the results are both funny and oftentimes bleak.

Slate also works very well with Gaby Hoffman, playing Donna's best friend Nellie. The two have excellent comic chemistry together, and the women are even funnier when paired with their friend Joey, played to hilarious effect by comedian Gabe Liedman. Their banter is often side-splittingly funny, and yet, again, there's an undeniable feeling of authenticity in terms of how these friendships are portrayed.

Donna's one-night-stand and potential love interest is played by Jake Lacy, most familiar as the new guy who wasn't Clark Duke on the final season of The Office. But Lacy is also quite good here, bringing the same sort of understated, solid-dude personality and humor that he had on The Office to this film. His character, Max, seems like an odd match for Slate's quirky comedienne Donna ... at least at first. But they have an opposites-attract chemistry that works.

The film's also got some of its key supporting roles filled out by familiar faces. The always-great Richard Kind plays Donna's doting dad, and Polly Draper does a fine job as her less amiable, stern mom, Meanwhile, David Cross pops up for some very funny bits as a sleazebag comedian acquaintance of Donna's.

A couple of key things here. One is that the movie essentially is, for all intents and purposes, a romantic comedy. But it's not a formulaic Hollywood rom-com in the slightest. There is much more to Donna (and Max, for that matter), then *just* the prospect of romance. And what romance there is is handled in a way that never panders or feels overly cheesy. It's all very low-key, and always emphasizing comedy and authenticity first. The fact that this is an indie film, and the specific vision of one creative mind - as opposed to written and created by committee - certainly helps. There will be no eye-rolling here. This is a romance that's actually engaging, and one that doesn't just feel paint-by-numbers. In fact, I was never quite sure just where the movie would take it.

On the abortion issue ... it's both front-and-center in Obvious Child, but at the same time, understated. This isn't a political movie in an overt sense. And to me, that's a welcome move, because it means that the film isn't bogged down with trying to bend over backwards to present all sides of the abortion issue. From early on, Slate's Donna decides to have an abortion, and the will-she or won't-she question isn't really even a question. Yes, there is trauma, and doubt, and even some heartache about the decision. But the film deals with it all in a way that's heartfelt and earnest, but never preachy or overwrought. It is what it is. The real crux of the issue is not the abortion, but what it represents - adult responsibility that the still-finding-her-way Donna may not be quite ready to handle. That's what makes her relationship with Max so interesting. Donna is the classic Gen Y'er who views everything as transient and impermanent. Max endearingly confesses that he can't wait to be a grandpa.

The movie's humor and heart come together pretty wonderfully, and everything is elegantly directed by Robespierre to feel both naturalistic and emotionally-charged. There's a Judd Apatow-esque vibe of sweetness-meets-raunchiness, but as Apatow's films have felt increasingly removed from reality, OBVIOUS CHILD feels vital, fresh, and of the here-and-now. Robspierre, Slate, and everyone else involved in the film have really created something cool and unique with this one.

My Grade: A-

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