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Entries in Obvious Child [2014] (1)

Monday
Jul142014

Obvious Child (2014)

Fetal Position

Obvious Child may top my list of 2014's most frustrating films. I found Gillian Robespierre's quirky abortion comedy to be neither funny nor insightful--two things you kind of need in hot-button-issue entertainment. Jenny Slate stars as Donna Stern, a late-20s New York comic whose life is perpetually in danger of falling apart. Her material is the kind of self-indulgent shock-schlock that might have been revolutionary in the pre-Sarah Silverman era, but which comes across as a pale imitation of Louis C.K.'s best stuff.

Where Donna comes up short as a stand-up, she excels as a whiner. She complains about her lack of success, lack of direction, lack of understanding from her at-their-limits parents (the fantastic Polly Draper and Richard Kind). Her best friends, Joey (Gabe Liedman) and Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), are sympathetic to a fault, encouraging her to get back on the dating horse after an unceremonious breakup--without once suggesting that Donna's problems might not rest entirely on her ex's shoulders.

One night at the bar, Donna meets Max (Jake Lacy), a young, buttoned-down professional who takes an instant liking to her. She pegs him as a snobby, money-obsessed Christian asshole (by looks only, mind you--only one of those traits turns out to be real). They talk. They drink. They hook up. A few weeks later, Donna discovers she's pregnant. On the advice of her friends, she decides to get an abortion and not tell Jake. Wackiness ensues as her baby-daddy keeps dropping back into her life.

From the tone of this review, you might have inferred that I'm a Bible-clenching pro-lifer. Yes, I am pro-life, but I'm also pro-choice (a stance that has nothing to do with holy books). I believe that no one should be able to tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body. At the same time, I think it's weird for a work of art to tackle this complex issue without exploring the alternatives to terminating a pregnancy.

Donna seeks an abortion with the eagerness of someone wishing to expunge a DUI.* The life (or potential life) inside her is an inconvenience and an embarrassment; keeping the baby or giving it up for adoption are, like, sooo out of the question. Despite this confidence of her supposed convictions, Donna doesn't have the guts to inform Jake of her decision (that might make her life complicated or something! Yucky!).

Look, I get that Donna represents a point of view I don't agree with, and I'm willing (eager, even) to be challenged by a movie about her. But Robespierre's film barely qualifies as anything more than a polemic, and Donna a puzzling, free-wheeling cypher.

Not only is the other "a" word never mentioned; not only does Donna finally reveal the truth to Jake on-stage, the night before the procedure; but the two main women in her life have also, coincidentally, had abortions and lived qualms-free lives. The boldness with which this film suggests there are no viable alternatives to their characters' decisions is akin to chopping off the last acts of Trainspotting, New Jack City, or Scarface, and heralding them as accurate depictions of drug use. Donna Stern lives in a consequence-free Thomas Kinkade snowglobe--not in any reality I've ever known. 

For further proof, look no further than Jake's zero-hour change of heart, which sees him setting aside his religious convictions and accompanying Donna to the clinic. He also apologizes to her for storming out of his very public "outing" the night before. In the end, we're left with a picture-perfect image of two lovebirds watching Gone with the Wind on a couch, inching towards mutual maturity and maybe, someday, kids.

I can take or leave Obvious Child's politics (I tuned out, frankly, during Nellie's rant about the oppressive American patriarchy, or whatever). The real bummer is how thoroughly squandered Slate and Lacy are in these roles. This should be a break-out film for both of them. Slate's childish cartoon antics grated on me, but genuine screen presence burst out from behind every rubber-faced pout. For his part, Lacy steals both the movie and the story. Max comes across as such a likable, together guy that I quickly grew to resent spending time with Donna and her friends.

I'd wager the filmmakers believe they've created a cultural touchstone. Instead, Obvious Child winds up a one-sided attention-seeker that not only fails to make a case to anyone remotely on the opposite side of Robespierre and company's self-satisfied fence, it has likely relegated its own significance in the "life" argument to a footnote of a footnote in a reference to Maude. To quote the late, great, real-life stand-up, Bill Hicks: "A war is when two armies are fighting."

*All credit to Graham Sher for that nifty encapsulation.