Jenny Slate as Donna Stern
Jake Lacy as Max
Gaby Hoffmann as Nellie
Gabe Liedman as Joey
David Cross as Sam
Richard Kind as Jacob Stern
Polly Draper as Nancy Stern
Paul Briganti as Ryan
Cindy Cheung as Dr. Bernard
Stephen Singer as Gene
Directed by Gillian Robespierre
Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a Brooklyn-based stand-up comic who’s been dumped by her boyfriend at the same time as losing her job at a bookstore, leaving her in a deep depression until she has a one-night stand with the affable Max (Jake Lacey). Weeks later, Donna learns she’s pregnant and she decides to have an abortion.
The film festival circuit, particularly Sundance and South by Southwest, have offered a lot of fresh and unique voices that show true promise of greater things to come. It would be nice if the pairing of first-time filmmaker Gillian Robespierre and comedienne Jenny Slate was one of them, but any originality or uniqueness is marred by the fact that Slate plays a character who may not be particularly relatable to anyone who won’t freely admit to being as self-centered as she is.
Annoying at times and pathetic at others, Donna Stern comes across like a cross between Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham, which isn’t a good starting point, especially as we’re brought into her world in the middle of her stand-up act filled with graphic descriptions of her private parts and sexual acts. Before anyone declares it as sexism to dismiss a movie told from such a distinctly female perspective, one in which Slate’s character says whatever’s on her mind, something that women will certainly appreciate, there’s nothing particularly empowering about the amount of time Donna spends saying the types of things critics regularly slam male comics for falling back upon.
Beyond that, the film is essentially a character piece centered around Donna dealing with finding out she’s pregnant and having to get an abortion since she can’t afford to care for a baby, and that’s one decision she makes in the movie we can fully get behind, because one can only imagine what kind of mother she might be. There aren’t many plot developments beyond that other than to have Donna interacting with her parents or co-worker, played by former child star Gaby Hoffman, who looks like she could be Slate’s sister. (Hoffman made a far bigger impression as Crystal Fairy in last year’s indie of the same name).
You can tell that Slate has acting chops and maybe the movie wouldn’t be so bad if she were writing her own material rather than trying to personify a character created by Robespierre, presumably involving some autobiographical aspects. To her credit, Robespierre’s a much better director than she is a writer as “Obvious Child,” which was expanded from an earlier short of the same name, looks better and is more technically-proficient than similarly-budgeted indies.
In terms of the laughs, because this is meant to be a comedy after all, a few scenes do click better than others like an awkward drunken evening Donna spends with her pushy fellow stand-up, played by David Cross. Really, the film’s most pleasing moments and the ones that make it bearable are those between Slate and Jake Lacey as Max, a super-nice guy who Donna happens to have a drunken one-night stand with. When he tries to turn it into something more, she proceeds to treat him so shabbily, she comes across as even more selfish making it hard to sympathize with her, especially when she needs comfort and he’s there to provide it.
Not to get political here, but when women decry how awful men can be, they often ignore the fact that many of them play the same games with men that Donna does with Max – I’ve known women like Donna and I generally try to stay away from them. That sort of feminist tunnel vision will just as readily ignore that Donna is a horribly whiny and self-obsessed person when it comes down to it. Other filmmakers and actors have been able to pull off this type of self-aware character in a far more accessible way–Jennifer Westfeldt of “Kissing Jessica Stein” for instance and even Dunham on “Girls”– but not being able to feel any sort of connection to a character who appears in every single scene really holds “Obvious Child” back in a big way. The about face they try to pull in the last ten minutes of the movie just doesn’t cut it.
The Bottom Line:
There’s certainly a fresh perspective and some potential on display in Gillian Robespierre’s debut–it will be interesting to see what she and Jenny Slate do next–but it’s hard to warm up to a movie when you hate its central character as much as I did this one. It’s also frustrating when a comedy about stand-up goes out of its way to be so unfunny.