Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffman, Jake Lacy, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, David Cross
Obvious Child is a very unusual romantic comedy – thoroughly independent, thoroughly New York City, and often not at all sweet or humorous in the least bit.
Sure, it’s a fascinating, troubling, well-acted movie that could have scriptwriters and movie buffs talking for hours – what works and what doesn’t. However, Obvious Child would be a tough sell to the average moviegoer not wanting to feel like blowing ten bucks and an hour and a half on something so risqué and discomfiting.
Slate (who once basically cursed herself out of a job on Saturday Night Live) portrays a struggling stand-up comic and Brooklyn slacker. Her act is of the self-flagellating kind – full of Sarah Silverman raunch, not very structured, and often feeling like a cheap replacement for psychotherapy. This goofball is, in many ways, not very mature – an obvious child. So, when she suffers a devastating breakup and has a drunken one-night stand with an overly sweet guy (Lacy), the following unexpected pregnancy is both funny and kind of heartbreaking.
After wandering around for the first few minutes, Obvious Child settles on this unsettling theme; Slate immediately plans for an abortion, and then drinks to forget her pain. Isn’t that hilarious? Isn’t that romantic?
So, perhaps before we get to this rocky comic theme, we didn’t need a lot of detail about Slate’s puppet-making, lovable father (Kind of Spin City) and her hard-as-nails, no-nonsense mom (Draper of thirtysomething). Scenes where sho loses her job also stretch on a little long.
This means the script – written by director Gabrielle Robespierre – is mature and intelligent, but it lacks drive and focus. Lots of other little tangents – comments about writing books, the heavy and constant drinking – are left hanging. Tertiary characters (like David Cross of Arrested Development) serve very little purpose. The film’s art direction leans a little too heavily on the quirky, Zooey Deschanel side.
Finally, poor boytoy Lacy is a little too sweet and understanding; his character lacks a dimensionality that would’ve made for a better, deeper film. Instead, he feels like a mythical “perfect” boyfriend the writers dreamt up. He feels so incomplete that we’re left with a nagging feeling he’s not telling her something.
What works here are the risks. Obvious Child takes some big leaps, especially with that theme. If at times the movie feels like it’s going the typical romantic comedy route, it soon shocks you out of your expectations. For instance, the appointment for the abortion is on St. Valentine’s Day. Slate spends a good portion of the film deciding how to invite Lacy to the medical proceedings.
The acting is also outstanding. The film itself seems to understand that the comedy doesn’t always work, both in the standup and the flick’s theme. Yet, the actors – especially Slate at the center – commit completely. (The scenes in Planned Parenthood and the clinic are models of restraint and delicacy.) In fact, all the actors – even the underutilized and underwritten ones – give such sound, deeply felt performances that it almost covers up all the loose strings. Almost.
Obvious Child certainly does not have the clichés we always get from other romantic comedies. It’s also not very romantic or funny at all much of the time.