'Obvious Child': A raw and hilarious comedy

Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.June 26, 2014 

Jenny Slate plays comedian Donna Stern, who has a memorable one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy) in Obvious Child.

A24 FILMS

  • MOVIE REVIEW

    'Obvious Child'

    ★★★★★

    R for language and sexual content. A24. 1:24. Kentucky.

Some people are going to hate Obvious Child and some people (including this person) are going to think it's the funniest movie of the year. I suspect there's not much middle ground.

Gifted former Saturday Night Live cast member Jenny Slate is astonishing as Donna Stern, a stand-up comedian whose shtick is that she always tells the truth on stage. Sometimes, that means audiences roar in shocked recognition of the humiliating situations Donna finds herself in and sometimes that means Donna falls apart on stage while the audience sits in embarrassed, bewildered silence — which is pretty much what happens when a shaky Donna goes on just after being dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job in the same week.

Slate is nimbly funny when Donna is offstage ("I've been doing a little light stalking," she confesses when a friend accuses her of spying on her ex) and confidently hilarious when Donna is performing. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre has given Slate the most fully developed female film role this year, and Slate is equally good at capturing Donna's sweetly vulnerable moments, as in when she asks her mom if she can hop in bed and cuddle with her.

Polly Draper, whom I've barely seen since Thirtysomething three decades ago, plays Donna's mother, and she's just one of the bright actors who pops up in Obvious Child. (It would be great for filmmakers to figure out how to use her more often.) Richard Kind is hilarious as Donna's teasing dad, from whom it's clear she gets her comic instincts. Gaby Hoffman, who was so great as Hannah's psycho semi-sister-in-law on Girls this season, is equally good as Donna's calm, centered friend. And Gabe Liedman, like Slate, plays someone who has contrasting onstage and offstage personas and, like Slate, he nails them both.

Obvious Child has become known as "the abortion comedy," which is true (in a string of bad choices, Donna has a one-night stand), but that's unfortunate, because Donna's visit to the clinic is just a tiny part of the movie.

It's also the one part of the movie where she comes off as completely sure of herself. The rest of the time, Donna is questioning her decisions, ambivalent about what she should do next, unsure about the steps she needs to follow to grow the heck up. That stuff feels real and funny and heart-breaking, all at the same time — and the fact that Robespierre has managed to capture all of it in her first feature film feels like the most hopeful thing to happen at the multiplex all year.

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