By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — There are obvious merits on display in Obvious Child, but they’re just not enough to make it the truth-telling pleasure it clearly wants to be.
Debuting writer-director Gillian Robespierre based her romantic comedy-drama on a short film (23 minutes) with the same title that she wrote, produced, and directed in 2009. But in fleshing it out to a nearly-four-times-as-long feature, Robespierre can’t hide the stretch marks, never quite conjuring the comedy-club hilarity or serious-theme gravitas that the film needs if it’s to memorably register.
Like its standup-comic protagonist, the film is rough around the edges, impressing us with its brave ambitiousness, but still struggling to get satisfying laughs and smiles of recognition.
Jenny Slate stars as twentysomething Brooklyn standup comedian Donna Stern, who spends her evenings delivering her idiosyncratic, irreverent, unfiltered, and often profane material, including the candid, confessional sharing of an intimate secret or three with a packed comedy club on open-mike nights.
Somewhat as a result of her dependence on autobiographical material, Donna gets dumped by her boyfriend (Paul Briganti), who leaves her for a mutual friend after she talks about him disparagingly one too many times in her standup act.
At about the same time, she is fired by her going-out-of-business bookstore employer.
Then, as if she’s not having a terrible enough time, she has an alcohol-aided one-night stand in which she has unprotected sex with Max, a decent, preppy, and not necessarily appropriate guy -– perhaps even her polar opposite — played by Jake Lacy (from television’s “The Office”) that results in her unplanned pregnancy, which in turn leads to her needing to make the most difficult decisions she has ever had to make: whether and when to tell Max and then whether or not to have an abortion at Planned Parenthood even though it’s plain to her and everyone in her life that she is not ready to be a parent.
The supporting cast features Gaby Hoffman as Donna’s best female friend, Gabe Liedman as her best male friend, puppeteer Richard Kind and professor Polly Draper as her divorced parents, and David Cross as a lecherous colleague comic with designs on her.
Obvious Child (its title from the Paul Simon song) is a modest independent feature that was aided by a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that led to its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
With the always volatile topic of abortion so prominent in the narrative, Obvious Child neither dismisses it nor dwells on it. Rather, it’s presented matter-of-factly, as an option to be weighed thoughtfully by an ambivalent character looking to take control of her destiny.
Slate, a young but experienced comedic actress whose most prominent credit was probably the 2009-2010 season she spent on TV’s “Saturday Night Live,” holds her own but at this juncture doesn’t seem quite ready for movie-screen prime time. The film badly needs a protagonist who earns our empathy early on so that her later predicament raises the stakes exponentially.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Perhaps it wouldn’t matter as much if Slate were able to wring the kind of laughs in the standup scenes that would have kickstarted the film more productively. Of course, some of that is on screenwriter Robespierre, but at least some of it is also on performer Slate.
Either way, any movie about comedians, no matter how serious it eventually gets, almost has to be funnier than this one to convince or succeed.
So we’ll decide on 2 stars out of 4. Obvious Child is neither obvious nor childish. And it neither offends nor embarrasses. It just doesn’t quite lift off.