' ' Cinema Romantico: Obvious Child

Monday, June 30, 2014

Obvious Child

The opening sequence of Gillian Robespierre's uneven yet nevertheless fabulous ode to a confused Jewish twenty something on the mean streets of NYC Williamsburg is fairly astonishing. Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a comedian on stage at a small club, cracking laid-back, profanely funny one-liners, and initially it reads as that sort of lazy device wherein a naturally funny person is provided a transparent cinematic platform to merely be her or himself being funny. But then the humor turns toward her boyfriend and while it becomes clear something is rotten in the state of their relationship, she still expresses it in the form of jokes. Until the very end when it becomes genuinely sad, strangely poignant, a less heartrending version of Tig Notaro's infamous "I have cancer" set. It's an exemplary tone-setter, mixing funny and pathos and not really allowing one or the other to win out.

Donna's comedy career is promising but she's not necessarily blazing a trail to the top. She works at a bookstore but that's closing. Her boyfriend breaks up with her, partially because of her routine, partially because he's been cheating on her. She's closing in on 30 and her prospects are dim. So another night she goes on stage and abandons her routine and unloads all her issues on an audience that doesn't want to hear it and afterwards gets blinding drunk, as such situations entail, and meets a really nice guy and sleeps with him and then she misses her period and her boobs hurt and she takes a pregnancy test and I'll give you one guess as to the result. Obviously she was going to wind up mistakenly conceiving a child.

That remark may sound flippant but it's remarkable just how un-flip "Obvious Child" is about such a sensitive subject without forgoing comicality. Donna chooses, at risk of spoiling what was revealed in the trailer, to abort the unplanned child, a decision she makes straight away. After all, when advised of the procedure's cost, she laments "that's one month's rent." Financially and professionally, she's in dire straits. Emotionally, she's even worse, and yet she still has the common sense to recognize her situation and deduce that simply having a child will not only fail as a cure-all, but likely be detrimental to the child itself. Life's complicated, and the "Life Begins At Conception" billboard raisers might take note of how Donna's attitude toward the inadvertent father Max (Jake Lacy) changes over the film's ninety minutes the more she gets to know him. He begins, in the words of the primary character’s best pal Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), as a “pee farter”, inadvertently letting go of a little intestinal gas right in front of Donna while urinating in the alley.

That may sound crass but hey, everybody farts, and a majority of the film’s material focuses on farting and pooping and peeing. But rather than simply working to cheat the laugh-o-meter, all these fart/poop/pee jokes underscore how the film rolls around with what's real and sweats the sincere stuff. Jenna Maroney said love is going downstairs to the Burger King to poop, but Donna Stern comes to learn that real love is being cool with your better half farting in your face.

It's a refreshingly honest viewpoint, and the couple is a believable match because Max proves himself capable of absorbing and exchanging one-liners with a person whose whole existence revolves around angling for one-liners in any social setting. Consequently, it becomes frustrating when they succumb to a derivative case of will they/won't they? The film is generally devoid of histrionic external conflict, choosing to focus on Donna's internal strife and how it manifests in her actions, and so its few forays into that kind of artificial conflict are rendered quite glaring. Like the distracting episode that finds our central character going back to the place of a fellow comedian (David Cross) without, per se, going home with him. It comes across as both a contrivance to keep Donna and Max apart for an extra length and an elaborate ruse to provide a David Cross cameo.

Yet perhaps most frustrating of all is how a progressive and feministic picture ultimately reduces itself to rom com lite. For even if Donna and Max earn our empathy, the most moving bond in “Obvious Child” is actually between Donna and Nellie. The movie Best Friend often fails to exist outside the role itself, afforded no individual life, hanging around solely to counsel the Protagonist. Hoffmann, however, in a performance that expresses equal doses of admirable patience and get-yourself-together encouragement, never makes it so simple. She and Slate, entirely and endearingly believable in her comedienne-ness and the way she's caught up inside her own head, form a bond of that feels wholly authentic despite limited screen time. It's not that I didn't want Donna to find happiness in every facet of her life. Of course, I did. It's just that I wanted these two non-sister Sisters to prove friends are as vital as significant others, that soulmates are not bound by traditional, antiquated law. If Jenny Slate is Lucille Ball then Gaby Hoffmann was meant to be her Vivian Vance.

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