'Obvious Child' is honest, hilarious and powerful

Rooks Nest Entertainment

By Jacob Rich, For The Daily
Published July 9, 2014

A brief note before we begin: you should not watch the trailer for “Obvious Child.” It is deceptive, poorly cut, and spoils many of the film’s funniest moments. The trailer would also have you believe that the film is a traditional romantic comedy, which it isn’t. Nor is the film a purposely subversive lampoon of rom-coms in the vein of “They Came Together.” “Obvious Child” is a powerful, emotional story about people, and about abortion. It’s also absolutely hilarious throughout, something I wasn’t expecting considering its subject matter.

Obvious Child

Rooks Nest Entertainment
Michigan Theater

The film opens with genuinely funny stand-up comedy. Donna Stern (Jenny Slate, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”) is onstage at a dingy comedy club in Brooklyn, the kind whose black marker-coated unisex bathrooms are crammed with hipsters every weeknight. While you may not remember her from SNL (her run only lasted a year and was cut short in part due to an accidental f-bomb), Slate is unforgettable here, dropping uncouth joke after uncouth joke about Judaism, dirty underwear, and farts. Each lands with the audience both onscreen and in the theater.

Immediately following her set, Donna is dumped by her boyfriend. Then she loses her job. Then, after a drunken one-night stand, gets pregnant. Donna seems to be locked in a continuous loop of bad luck and unfortunate circumstances. Her plight reaches a climax of irony when she decides to get an abortion — the procedure must be done on Valentine’s Day.

Despite these trying circumstances our heroine must face, this film about an abortion is rarely dark or depressing. For Donna, comedy is more than just a hobby; it’s a coping mechanism. Donna sees the humor in even the most unfortunate of situations. Expect the film’s frequent, funny jokes to range from the macabre, like comparing an abortion clinic to the DMV, to the just plain nasty, like when Donna contemplates the logistical challenges abortion faced in the 60’s because “the bushes were so big back then.” Gillian Robespierre (a writer/director so fresh-faced her Wikipedia page was literally written and published WHILE I was writing this review) jokes about the obviously controversial subject with a balance of poise, brains, and blunt honesty. Much like a great episode of “South Park,” you will laugh both at the crudeness of the humor and the topical cleverness behind it. And unlike the vast majority of today’s comedies, nothing will insult your intelligence in this film.

Slate’s performance, which due to the limited release and controversial subject of this film will likely not receive the praise it deserves, is frighteningly human. Donna is hard-drinking, crude, and sometimes obnoxious, but she deftly balances her character’s negative and positive traits to seem almost … real. It’s in stark contrast to comedies like “Juno,” where characters talk and act in ways only people with memorized scripts could. Donna does pathetic real- people things, like spending hours leaving drunken messages on her ex’s voicemail. I’ve met people just like Donna. I’ve never met anyone like Juno.

Miraculously, Robespierre managed to find a supporting cast that stands up to Slate in both their ability to act like real people and to be hysterical. Polly Draper (CBS’s “Golden Boy”) stands out as Donna’s mother, who impressively balances neurotic with wise and mature in several key scenes. Several comedians are also allowed scene-stealing moments, especially unknown Gabe Liedmen, who spews a cavalcade of fantastic one-liners as Donna’s “gay best friend” Joey.

Robespierre did not simply succeed in garnering laughs through dialogue — clever film techniques and ironic juxtaposition lead to some of the film’s funniest moments. A somber scene in which Donna, a sobbing wreck, stands outside her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, got big laughs as country singers croon “single girl, single girl, always dressed so fine.” In another scene taking place in an abortion clinic, Donna hauntingly and hilariously sports a shirt printed with adorable baby footprints.

If I had to find one criticism with this film, it would be that Donna’s love interest, Max (Jake Lacy, NBC’s “The Office”) is a bit too much of a white knight. The film tries to counterbalance his chiseled looks and tendency to always have the right thing to say with a touch of awkwardness, but it’s not enough to keep his character from feeling far less realistic as Donna.

I realize I have been frustratingly vague about the direction the plot takes, but I wouldn’t dare spoil anything else about this funny, fearless movie. Know this: it never gives in to any sort of Hollywood cheese. “Obvious Child” is the best movie I’ve seen this year, and the best comedy I’ve seen in several.