'Obvious Child' teases the comedy out of human condition

Los Angeles TimesJuly 4, 2014 

I think we need a new movie genre dubbed “Girls” for films echoing the vision articulated so well by Lena Dunham in her tart HBO comedy about single, young females in the city trying to figure themselves out. Life is awkward, emotions are unfiltered, it all unfolds with a raw, R-rated edge.

That kind of truth-telling anchors Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child,” a quirky romantic comedy starring the very funny Jenny Slate. It is an affable addition to the growing sisterhood of films with that awkward female factor, including 2012’s “Frances Ha,” starring a charmingly hapless Greta Gerwig, and the West Coast/middle-age version, 2013’s “Enough Said,” with the delightful fumblings of Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

On the surface, “Obvious Child” is about a few weeks in the life of aspiring stand-up comic Donna Stern. “Obvious” follows Donna’s emotional journey from romance, to breakup, to one-night stand, to unexpected pregnancy, to romance, to abortion — much of which is mined for laughs in her confessional-style late-night routines.

Written and directed by Robespierre, “Obvious Child” uses Donna’s revelations about her personal life — from sex to hygiene — to work through a range of personal issues. Abortion may be the big one, but it is not the only one. Her relationship status — with guys, friends, parents and career — takes up a lot of space too.

Manhattan for “Girls”-era women like Donna is a very particular place, with its own behavioral codes and cliches. Robespierre captures the ethos of it in this deceptively understated feature film debut. The stand-up scenes are not hysterically funny; they reveal the nervous energy you feel in the crowd and in the comic when especially intimate details are shared. Slate delivers Robespierre’s casual dialogue with such self-deprecating charm that even a graphic description of the state of her underwear at the end of a day is weirdly entertaining.

The more serious story lying under the surface deals with the pangs of early adulthood. In all things personal and romantic, Donna’s hand-wringing is endless; indeed, it comprises the bulk of her existence. Yet it feels less like rhetoric, more like reality as Slate imbues it with the unpretentious narcissism of a precocious, adored, socially conscious only child. That authenticity helps make up for some of the film’s fits and starts.

The film is shot on a typical indie budget in and around New York, and the city helps the cause. The clever crew feeds off the energy of a place always in motion to match a life always in motion, led by cinematographer Chris Teague, production designer Sara K. White and costume designer Evren Catlin. Composer Chris Bordeaux has ginned up an eclectic musical mash-up in the score.

Donna is surrounded by the typical young adult safety net: Parents — hers are divorced and delightful: Dad Jacob (Richard Kind) is the more nurturing sort, Mom Nancy (Polly Draper) the more demanding. Friends are her quasi-family: Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), the one with good advice; fellow stand-up Joey (Gabe Liedman), responsible for unconditional support (Liedman is Slate’s real-life comedy partner). David Cross shows up for a quick turn as an older stand-up friend/lech named Sam.

As “Obvious Child” stumbles its way to the final punch line, it echoes Donna’s on-stage musings — funny but rough around the edges. A work in progress that somehow hooks you anyway.

OBVIOUS CHILD

* * * *

Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman

Director: Gillian Robespierre

Running time: 1:25

Rated: R; language and sexual content

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