Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Movies You May Have Missed - Obvious Child (2014)

Despite my age and gender, I don't fit into the romantic-comedy movie demographic. That's because I'm about as romantic as a home-cooked meal. A really great home-cooked meal and I'll even do the dishes afterwards, but don't expect me to do it in a satin teddy with full makeup and scented candles. That's just impractical! And will interfere with your meal. [Note that if I were a male, making this meal would be deemed "romantic" enough for most—FOOD FOR THOUGHT.]

What's the least romantic thing in the world? That's right—having an abortion. But director/writer Gillian Robespierre and her collaborators (writers Karen Maine, Elisabeth Holm and Anna Bean, who also worked on the short film the feature was based upon ) have done it—made a rom-com about a woman who's having an abortion. In fact, the abortion is a factor in the will they/won't they rom-com trope. Not the will they "do it" question. Obviously, they did. But will they connect on a fulfilling emotional level once the deed is done? You might be thinking no way will this work—not in a million years, buddy-boy. But somehow it does and it accomplishes the task by honoring protagonist Donna Stern's truth, which happens to be a truth that many of us have experienced, with all its messiness and imperfection. It's a rom-com scramble!

No matter how you feel about abortion, one thing's absolutely certain, the odds are high that you or someone you know and love has had one. Or will have one. Because humanity, in all its cunning and wisdom, can't bypass our basic genetic disposition to survive. And that survival depends on procreation. And procreation is driven by biological urges, and sometimes alcohol and desperation. We're sexual beings and our birth-control methods are fallible, and so medically safe, effective abortion procedures are imperative. Our survival depends on that too. It's obvious.

And now:

Meet Donna Stern (Jenny Slate, doing a fine job with comedy and the deeper emotional stuff, plus no matter what the circumstance—always such great hair). Just a typical young lady, looking for love in the big city—kidding. She's not typical or that young. She's a 28-year-old comedian, working the stage of a neighborhood bar while day-jobbing it in a bookstore (no one can afford NYC-borough rents by working in a bookstore. Still, it's a dream job for many bookish young women, trying to make it in a difficult field, such as comedy, so we suspend disbelief and allow Donna her dream job.)

And Donna isn't even looking for love. She's currently in a relationship, mining it for her often vulgar act—musing on such earthy subjects as vaginal discharge, farts, and sexual dysfunction. While Donna's comic persona isn't for everyone, she does leave the audience giggling into their drinks, appreciating a woman who can be just as gross as any male comedian. Feminist progress!

But within ten minutes of the movie, she's been dumped by her boyfriend in a most unpleasant manner. And laid off from her long-term bookstore employment as well. Dark times!

Luckily, she has a supportive family, including goofy puppeteer dad, played by Richard Kind, who has no problem doing goofy. And business professor mom, played by Polly Draper, who has a hard time accepting her intelligent daughter's dream to write and perform great fart jokes. But there are comforting dinners and hugs all around.

Donna also has a really good friend, Nellie, played by the great Gaby Hoffman. After this film (and several others, including the series Girls), I've decided to see anything Gaby Hoffman is in for the rest of our natural lives. A warm, natural presence—yet intensely odd if a story calls for that. Here's she's the kind of friend anyone would love to have, and along with wise-cracking comedian pal, Joey (Gabe Liedman), Donna's future is actually in good shape.

The film's main flaw is its first half-hour, when Donna is hitting bottom—drinking, obsessing over her ex, bombing at the club (her bad set is audience-punishing). It's risky for Donna to be this wilting and weepy so early on in the story. Her earlier pre-breakup comedy set should have been even better, so we can feel how low she's sinking. And empathize. The film at times loses the balance between character drama and genre expectations. Donna is a budding comedian who's growing into her act, but the genre demands that she fall from some sort of grace if we're to root for her romantic (or personal) dilemma.

My other issue with the narrative has to do with her ex, who crushes her spirit by taking up with her best friend. We don't spend more than a few minutes with him (although it's a memorable jerk moment) and only get a glimpse of the best friend, and that's it. This diminishes the impact of Donna's despair, however comedic and lacking in dignity. Watching a romantic comedy unfold, we want to see emotional antagonism in action, if only briefly, so our heroine can become that much more of a potential shining star.

But at least Slate is able to handle these heavier scenes, pulling the comedy from pathos, as she partakes in a bit of "light stalking" and drinks to an excessive degree, further exasperating her impulse-control issues. I have a soft spot for a drunken heroine.

It gets better. After Donna's culmination of setbacks, into the bar walks goy-next-door, Max (Jake Lacy).

Max is easy on the eyes and not the least bit creepy as he shyly flirts with Donna. In fact, they get along great because they're snockered beyond comprehension. Hence the dancing-in-underwear to Paul Simon surrounded by books montage.

But, as we know from the trailer, Donna soon finds herself with embryo. She's a single, unemployed, would-be comedian who's been impregnated by a guy she met in a bar while on a bender. There is no question she's going to get an abortion. It's not even a question. The question is, why does she keep running into this Max guy after the dirty deed? It works because Donna and Max, hang out in the same geographic circles and despite everything, have good chemistry.

I just put this here because I appreciate that a dad who's a puppeteer is going to be a little freakish at times.

Yup, there's chemistry galore between our two leads. I was rooting for them, especially in the scene involving the Crocs. I appreciate human interaction that stems from footwear—particularly ridiculous footwear.

How will Donna make it through the abortion? Not lightly, and with help from her friends. Like many low-budget first features, Obvious Child starts out a little rough. But halfway through I was emotionally involved, perhaps even a bit teary, due to the strong performances. Especially by the great interplay between actors—who are very much friends, parents, and potential partners on screen. That sort of familiar and spontaneous back-and-forth is difficult to capture, but Gillian Robespierre, through solid casting and whatever spark carried her team through this seemingly impossible concept, accomplished it. And gave us a love story about modern human beings—a rarity, much appreciated.

If Gaby Hoffman and Jenny Slate were to team up onscreen again, I'm for that


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