Review: Obvious Child (2014)

Obvious ChildNo matter what the ads say, this is not a “Rom-Com” about abortion. It’s romantic, yes. It’s has an abortion as a through line, sure, but it’s in the comedy part where I question things. I’m not saying it’s a bad film but it’s not a particularly funny one.

The story follows Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) who is a 28 year old, adrift in New York. She’s working days at a dead end job in a “quirky” book store (which, we find out we see her there, is closing) and at night she’s trying to make a go of it as a stand up comedian. After being dumped by her boyfriend, she ends up having a one night stand with a nice guy, Max (Jake Lacy) and gets pregnant. The rest of the film is her dealing with the consequences of this action.

But that’s not where things go off the rails. No, the comedy club, the first thing we see, is where the first real problem comes in. As someone who’s worked in a sketch comedy club, one of the hardest things I’ve ever seen anyone try to pull off is fake stand-up. Especially bad fake stand-up. Especially in a comedic way. Thing is, trying to be funny and not funny at the same time is a zero-sum game and you can’t win it. Here, Donna just isn’t funny. She appears to be using her five minute slot as therapy. As her roommate tells her: “What is so great about you is you are unapologetically yourself on that stage and that’s why people love you.”

Except they don’t. The people at the club rarely laugh at her meandering monologues. In fact, none of the characters really seem to care about any of the other characters. The sole exception being Donna’s best friend Joey (Gabe Liedman) but he’s generally reduced to a series of gay cliches (and also, not funny stand-up). Nothing comes organically from character development or even plot – it all comes more from the idea that this might have happened to writer/director Gillian Robespierre and she wants to get it all down. And make it real.

By doing that, though, she plays into every indiefilm trope out there. Her dialogue, in addition to being unfunny, is purposefully crude and “edgy.” And goes nowhere. One of the key tenets of writing, particularly screenwriting, is that dialogue is not conversation. It must serve a purpose by advancing character and/or plot. An indulgence here or there is okay, but this whole film is built around indulgence. We never know anyone’s name, we never understand why the characters are doing what they’re doing. Even though the topic is ostensibly abortion, we never even get any type of introspection. Because of this, we’re almost expecting Donna to call it off at the last minute because we’ve never even seen her think about it. Her bigger concern is whether or not she should tell Max about the baby. This is a good concern to have, and this is also where most of the laughs come from, but with no insight into Donna, none of the rest of it means anything.

I’m laying all the problems at the foot of the script, though, because the performances, especially Slate, are remarkable (given what they had to work with). The fact we don’t outright hate Donna or her friends is due strictly to their portrayals and what they bring to it. I hope Slate and Liedman get more work soon. I’d love to see them tackle something with some meat on it. I think they’ve got the chops to handle it.

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