Monday, June 16, 2014

Obvious Child (***)

Written and Directed by Gillian Robespierre


There have been many films that strive to be the kind of subversive romantic comedy that Obvious Child is. The film is the brain child of filmmaker Gillian Robespierre, who made the film as a short back in 2009 and now makes her feature film debut with this new, shiny rebuffed version. It's a film within that fast growing genre that are about New York in such an insulating way, that it's hard to imagine someone from outside the Big Apple really having any full appreciation. A lot of scenes are in a Williamsburg dive bar or a relic of a used book store. Characters speak while books by Tom Wolfe and John Kennedy Toole are prominently displayed in the background, and watch Gone With The Wind without irony (which is, in itself, a bit ironic). Before two major characters culminate a one-night-stand, they dance in their apartment to Paul Simon's second most popular record. It's a Hipster Hater's nightmare. And so, the film feels very much like a feature film debut, the movie's most ambitious shots are usually just the ones that look straight down from the ceiling. Luckily, Obvious Child has Jenny Slate as its star. Slate, a former SNL cast member, doesn't need to prove that she's funny here, instead delivering such a heartbreaking, lived-in performance that upgrades the whole film as a result.

Slate plays a stand-up comedian named Donna Stern, a performer known for simply regurgitating the mundane, sometimes embarrassing moments within her everyday life and transforming it into laughs from her audience. Nothing is off limits, including the unflattering stains in her underwear and the lack of sex happening between her and her boyfriend, Ryan (Paul Briganti). After a successful show, Donna is confronted by Ryan about bringing the personal moments between them onto the stage. Not long after, Ryan admits that he's been sleeping with her good friend Kate and that their relationship is over. The break up is so blunt and casual that Ryan can barely be bothered to look away from his phone during the whole procedure. Donna is heartbroken and retreads home to take part in one of those drunken montages where she leaves dozens of voicemails on Ryan's cell phone, each one more embarrassing than the one before it. Everyone, including her best friend and roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) try to comfort her, explaining that it's not her fault, it's just that Ryan is an asshole. But if that's true, doesn't that make Donna the girl who dated an asshole?

Soon after the break-up, Donna's job at a small used bookstore is thrown up in the air when her boss explains that the lease on their space is up and that the store will have to close down. Donna's life quickly sees itself delving into a tailspin of emotional and monetary vacancy. She seeks refuge from her separated parents, but her father, Jacob (Richard Kind), is a happy-go-lucky puppeteer who's much better at dealing with a happy Donna than a sad one. Her mother, Nancy (Polly Draper), is a successful, intelligent business professor, but her relationship with Donna is cold and strict; she'd like to see her adult daughter make something of herself instead of toiling from job to job trying to make it as a comedian. It's hard to imagine any time in which Jacob and Nancy were ever a happily married couple. All of this turmoil comes to a head when Donna is brought back onto the stage to perform a comedy set, but instead performs a cringe-worthy monologue about how she hopes to murder Ryan and Kate before killing herself. Donna's sets are almost always uncomfortably personal, but this scares the audience into silence.

While discussing her bombing afterward with her friend and fellow comedian Joey (Gabe Liedman, in a truly hilarious, scene-stealing supporting role), Donna retreads to the bar for more drinks and meets Max (Jake Lacy). Max arrived at the bar just in time to miss Donna's entire set and instead forwardly introduces himself. The two of them share drinks and become tipsy with flirtation. Max is sweet, handsome, and funny enough to keep up with the vulgar Donna while still knowing to allow her to be the star of any given conversation. She goes over to his place and the two have a drunk one night stand. Donna wakes before slinking away from his place the next morning before Max wakes up. It isn't till a few weeks later that Donna realizes that she may be pregnant with the baby of a man she hardly knows. When the pregnancy is confirmed, she makes swift plans for an abortion, hoping to quickly erase the mistake she made and move on with her life. The situation is complicated when Max reappears in her life, sweeter than ever, looking to continue seeing her. Max shows no pretensions, he's just genuinely attracted to the messy, unstable Donna, and Donna must decide whether or not to tell him the situation before she decides to get the abortion.

All of Robespierre's efforts seem focused on the quality of the performances, and this is the area where Obvious Child succeeds most. The performances from Kind and Draper are key to explaining the fractured mania of Donna's personality, while Hoffman and Liedman do an excellent job of toeing that line of supporting comic relief and relaying that kind of friendship sympathy which is the key to keeping people like Donna afloat. As Donna's love interest, Jake Lacy's performance is incredibly sincere. It's hard to believe someone like Max - a business student with conservative fashion choices - really falling for Donna the way that he does, but Lacy fills the character with enough surprises that the complexity seems believable. Above all, though, the performance from Jenny Slate is the kind of star-making work that should make her just as big as Kristen Wiig or Anna Faris. She's definitely funny in that kind of off-the-cuff style that movie comedy has learned to really appreciate this past decade, but what she brings to the character of Donna is probably more than audiences will expect. She captures the inherent paranoia and self-loathing of millennial melancholia, but does so with a performance that feels so natural and lived-in. For the performer remembered for accidentally saying 'Fuck' live on SNL, Obvious Child goes a long way toward legitimizing Slate not only as a comedienne, but as a genuine actress.

The script to Obvious Child gets a bit tedious at times. An entire sequence is committed to a comedian named Sam (played with great, but unwelcome wit by David Cross) who is an old friend of Donna and now wishes to woo her once she's single. Converting Obvious Child from the short film it once was to the feature it now is seems to be a bit of an exercise that Robespierre can only face with dangling scenes and run-ons of improvisation that seem just as tedious as Donna's stand-up sets. I've read a few reviews that have called Obvious Child out for looking uninspired in its formal style. I do not think that Robespierre's film is as blank and lazily constructed as some of her Mumblecore peers, but the shots are obviously organized with performance in mind, with little creativity in its movement or in its cutting. Of course, this is not the kind of film that relies on that kind of thing. Robespierre seems perfectly fine allowing Slate and this wonderful acting ensemble steal the spotlight. But a lack of interest in formal skill is a dangerous precedent that has become prevalent in the last two decades, and I don't think a filmmaker should ever really be proud about making a film look boring basically on purpose.

The state of romantic comedies has been dissected with a particular cruelty lately. It's frequent dismissal carries many sociological landmines that many of its biggest critics would like to ignore. It is, for all intensive purposes, the only film genre that is marketed towards women more than it is toward men. But films like Obvious Child prove that it's not the genre that has grown stale, but the way studios have chosen to interpret those genres. It is not a genre that is tightly bound the way science fiction or, more specifically, the western is. You can stretch the genre, the way a film like Eternal Sunshine did in 2004, revolutionizing the way love stories can be told on the big screen. Obvious Child is nowhere near the masterpiece that Eternal Sunshine is, but it does stretch the genre just as much as that film did, perhaps even more. The basic conceit of telling a tale of budding romance through the prism of that same couple having an abortion is something I don't believe I've ever seen before. Blue Valentine came close, but changes its mind at the final moment (again, this film is no Blue Valentine, but you see my point). It's a very mature, progressive idea to bring up. Robespierre doesn't give this concept as much scrutiny as, say, Lars von Trier might have, and that seems right, considering the very character-oriented nature of the storytelling. Robespierre wants us to love Donna, but more importantly wants us to love her for who she is. A progressive idea, indeed.

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