As “Donna,” Jenny Slate is a cookbook version of a New-York-Jewish-Girl: by day she works in an Indie bookstore while at night she performs in a rundown comedy club.
Donna may have lousy luck with men, but her indulgent friends think she is brilliant, and her supportive parents offer her the illusion of independence (no doubt hoping she will soon sort her life out).
Oy! I really, really wanted to like this film, but nope. The thin, stereotypical characters and the cloying political correctness left me cold.
Ironically, the one scene that genuinely moved me came late in the film, after I had already lost my patience. Donna goes to visit her mother — played by the luminous Polly Draper — and their chemistry is so strong and so unexpected that I actually began to doubt myself.
Alas no. Once that scene was over, so was my suspension of disbelief. (JLH: 3/5)
Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.
Obvious Child is a 2014 feature film by director Gillian Robespierre which she wrote in collaboration with Karen Maine and Elisabeth Holm after she and Maine had created a successful short version (with Anna Bean) in 2009 that was also called Obvious Child.
Perhaps if I had known so many “cooks were in the kitchen” – not a one of whom has any prior screenwriting credits listed in IMDb – I would have entered the theatre with lower expectations… and had a better time…
Of course I always try to enter the theatre with high expectations. As my wise husband/partner Rich says: “No one ever intends to make a bad movie.” And even though Mel Brooks turned this optimism on its head in The Producers, I still think it’s a true statement. But in this case, I had also heard the buzz from colleagues who had seen Obvious Child at the Tribecca Film Festival, so I was pumped. I really, really wanted to like it, but I didn’t like it… not at all.
Obvious Child is about a 28-year-old woman named Donna who wants to be a standup comedian. Donna spends her nights at a comedy club so she can get experience as a performer. Income – such as it is – comes from her day job in an Indie bookstore.
Although some of her lines hit home, Donna’s standup routines are pretty scatological and way too self-indulgent. Say it’s the 1950s and you are comedian Henny Youngman and you are in the ballroom of a Borscht Belt hotel and you say: “Take my wife… please.” Do people think you are talking about your actual wife…? I doubt it. Say it’s the 1970s and you are comedian Phyllis Diller and you are on The Tonight Show sitting next to Johnny Carson and you make jokes about someone you call “Fang.” Do people think you are talking about your actual husband…? I doubt it.
But now it’s 2010+ and Donna is in a tiny club telling strangers that her sex life has degenerated to the “functional” stage. If you are Donna’s boyfriend “Ryan” (Paul Briganti) and you are in the audience and you can feel everyone in the audience looking at you… well… Why is Donna so surprised when the first thing that happens in Obvious Child is that Ryan breaks up with her?
Someone named “Nellie” (Gaby Hoffmann) tries to console Donna by telling her that everyone in the audience loves her because she is so honest on stage. Dumb me: I assume from the context that Donna is telling the truth. Her relationship with Ryan has bottomed out, so it’s time for both of them to move on. But then Donna goes off the deep end, stalking Ryan and filling his voice mail queue with drunken and often abusive “apology messages.”
Here’s my problem: I don’t know who Ryan is. I don’t know anything about their relationship except that Donna – the truth-teller – has made their private life a public joke. And that turns out to be the rule for what is yet to come. Almost every character in Obvious Child is just as thinly-drawn as Ryan is.
Take Nellie. Who is Nellie? I went back to see Obvious Child a second time, just to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything, but I still can’t tell you who Nellie is. Is she Donna’s BFF? Is she Donna’s roommate? Does she work in the bookstore?
As far as I can tell, Nellie is a Fairy Godmother who magically appears on screen every time Donna needs her. But Nellie has no substance or independent existence; she’s just a screenplay plot device.
Eventually Donna meets someone new named “Max.” Unlike Nellie, Max (Jake Lacy) at least gets a little bit of a backstory, but it’s totally one dimensional. Their potential union of opposites is reduced to a punch line. “Max is a Christmas tree,” says Donna. “And I am the menorah on top that is going to burn it down.” This is actually the mildest of Donna’s Jewish jokes. Anne Frank, Project Birthright, and the Holocaust each get similarly fine-tuned moments of “truth.”
Obvious Child only has one character who was at all believable to me, Donna’s mother “Nancy Stern” (played by a luminous Polly Draper). This is ironic because “the Jewish Mother” is typically an object of great ridicule. But the only scene in Obvious Child which genuinely touched me was a one-on-one in Nancy’s bed midway through Act III.
Mother and daughter have a warm, intimate chat which not only explains how Donna – with all her flaws – has managed to get so far in life, but also reassures us. Yes, Donna has gotten herself into a bit of trouble by this point, but everything is going to be OK.
It helps that right before the scene with her mother, Donna also has a nice scene with her father. Richard Kind isn’t given much to do as “Jacob Stern,” but there’s enough in this one scene to convince us that young Nancy might once have married young Jacob, and this is a daughter than these two people might well have produced.
Many years ago, I heard John Sayles — who has two Oscar nominations in the Best Original Screenplay category — say that he writes a briefing book about every character (major AND minor) who appears in one of his screenplays. Perhaps that’s why all the characters in a John Sayles film feel real. Even if we don’t know exactly what happened to them before they arrived on screen, we know in our bones that they all have lived experience.
That density is missing from Obvious Child. With the exception of Nancy Stern, everyone in Obvious Child – even Donna – feels more like a screenplay plot device than an actual person. Alas, too many cooks have definitely spoiled this stew.
Top Photo: Jenny Slate as “Donna” in the unisex rest room at the comedy club.
Middle Photo: Donna with her mother “Nancy Stern” (Polly Draper).
Bottom Photo: Donna with “Nellie” (Gaby Hoffmann) at the bookstore.
Photo Credits: © 2014 – A24 (Distributor)
Q: Does Obvious Child pass the Bechdel Test?
Yes. The critical conversation Donna has with her mother Nancy in Act III is definitely not “about a man.”
Donna also has other important conversations with women. (See Below)
+++++ SPOILER ALERT: WHY SO MUCH BUZZ? +++++
I think Obvious Child is a mediocre movie and yet it has a 89% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes… What gives? Reading through their reviews, many of my colleagues seem to feel that just raising the topic of abortion these days requires a degree of bravery that is sufficient to bump this film up in their estimation. I wish I could agree.
When Juno became an Oscar contender in 2008, I was furious. Watching Greenberg, I wanted to tear my hair out when writer/director Noah Baumbach sent the pregnant “Florence” character (Greta Gerwig) – who had no health insurance – into the hospital for an overnight stay for “a D&C.” And don’t even get me started on The Greatest and Knocked Up.
But Obvious Child is not the first film to take the issue of choice seriously and treat people who work hard to protect patient choice with respect. Two recent examples are Blue Valentine and Sunlight Jr. In both of these films, female characters encounter the same kind of people Donna finds at Planned Parenthood – serious, compassionate people who know the rules and do their best to preserve and protect.
Good intentions are not enough. What matters is execution. When a topic is this important, it takes more – not less – to move me.