Movie Review: Obvious Child (2014)
In the first three minutes of the movie, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), doing standup, lists off several things that can go wrong with the vagina. The rest of the movie is something she doesn’t mention: pregnancy and abortion. From the start, Donna and writer-director Gillian Robespierre want you to know it’s not all rose petals down there.
When did I fall in love with this movie? I think after Donna is dumped in the club’s unisex bathroom by her boyfriend, Ryan, then consoled by her gay friends (one male, one female), until she winds up at the apartment of her father, Jacob (Richard Kind), who makes “pasghetti” and talks her through her troubles. Kind usually plays the doofus Jew, the one who doesn’t get what’s going on, but here he keeps giving advice I wish I’d heard when I was 27. “You know, creative energy sometimes comes from the lowest point in your life,” he says. “Negativity will either be your best friend or your worst enemy,” he says. Then he suggests Donna go see her mother, Nancy (Polly Draper, still hot), and Donna objects:
Donna: You guys need to know there are some children out there who don’t talk to their parents for months.
Jacob: Really? Not ... my ... child.
He leans in to say this line. He says it with firmness and warmth. The world plays that way? Well, we don’t.
My god, isn’t that lovely?
For a shegetz, he’s a mensch
“Obvious Child” is a kind of reverse-gender “Annie Hall.” It’s about a Jewish comedienne who winds up with a nice gentile boy—a shegetz. But there’s a big difference between this shegetz and that shiksa. Besides the obvious one.
Along with nighttime standup, Donna works at a bookstore, “Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books,” which turns out to be a real thing (I immediately thought of Woody in “Annie” reducing Allison Porchnik to a cultural stereotype: New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West ... ) Since it’s 2014, the store is going out of business. So everything’s falling apart for Donna. Even her standup is unfunny in the wake of her break-up.
Thankfully, the movie’s not. At one point, Donna and lesbian friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman of “Girls”) are sounding off on men in front of gay friend, and fellow standup, Joey (Gabe Liedman). “Everything you are saying is valid,” he says, “but you are scaring my dick off.” At another point, Donna visits her mother, a professor, who is as cold as her father is warm, and, closing the refrigerator door, she jumps seeing her mother, late 50s attractive, standing there. Hand over heart, she tells her mom, “You’re like an Eileen Fischer Ninja!”
What stops Donna’s downward cycle? A boy, of course: Max (Jake Lacy of the final seasons of “The Office”), who is polite, painfully WASPy, and who works in the gaming industry in a way that confuses and/or bores the comedians. That night, he and Donna get drunk, go back to his place, dance in their underwear, then sleep together. In the morning, she tiptoes out. Because she’s not ready for another relationship? Because he’s a computer programmer? Because he’s a shegetz? Because of the word shegetz?
But he keeps showing up—in ways either believable (at the comedy club) or not (at her mother’s place, since he’s her former student who’s returning a book he borrowed). Donna keeps pushing him away again. Partly because she’s confused. Mostly because she’s pregnant. She actually finds out too early, so she has to wait a few weeks until Valentine’s Day, of all days, for the abortion.
I assumed this would give her time to get together with Max and keep the baby and live happily ever after. I mean, for all the right-wing attacks on Hollywood, abortions aren’t the stuff of movies anymore. Certainly not rom-coms. But Robespierre is made of sterner stuff. Max comes through—for a shegetz, he’s a mensch—but Donna still goes through with the abortion. Jokes are even made before Donna goes onstage at the comedy club:
Nellie: You are going to kill it out there.
Donna: Actually, I have an appointment to do that tomorrow.
My god, that’s ballsy.
Even better is the heart-to-heart with mom, who reveals her own abortion, illegal, in the 1960s. A little history lesson for the younger crowd.
He’s also without personality
“Obvious Child,” whose title is based upon the Paul Simon song for reasons I can’t fathom, is a short, sweet movie, but it differs from “Annie Hall” in this: the gentile there, Annie, had personality. She seemed a real person. Max? He’s not ... anything. He floats along in a sea of niceness, accompanies Donna to Planned Parenthood, sits with her on the couch afterward, suggests a movie. He warms butter for her with his hands. He shows up when necessary and cuddles when necessary.
You know how women complain about one-dimensional female characters in male-driven rom-coms? Max is the male version of that. But he’s invaluable in that. He gives every guy a glimpse into the secret heart of women everywhere. It’s kind of scary. More, please.