Review: ‘Obvious Child’ is a shaggy vehicle for up-and-comer Jenny Slate

Jenny Slate mourns the humiliations piled upon her in "Obvious Child." Credit: Chris Teague
Jenny Slate mourns the humiliations piled upon her in “Obvious Child.”
Credit: Chris Teague

‘Obvious Child’
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Stars: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Jenny Slate is not (yet) a household name, and isn’t even a tested movie lead. Most have seen her, if at all, as the demonically self-centered Mona-Lisa Saperstein, sister to trend-spotter Jean-Ralphio, on “Parks and Recreation.” Her first starring movie, the indie comedy “Obvious Child,” paints her in a much more approachable light. She’s Donna, a stand-up comic in Williamsburg, and the film built around her is very much of the “Bridesmaids”/”Frances Ha” school of struggling, beset-upon single women, where the fates seem to have it out for someone who already had it rough.

In fact she has it worse than both of those film’s leads, probably combined: In short order, she’s dumped, loses her job and gets knocked up after a drunk hook-up. The best day to get an abortion, as it turns out, is Valentine’s Day. Donna doesn’t sweat much over the abortion, which is not to say that she (or the film) takes it lightly. She’s in no position to give birth, much less raise a child, and the belief in female body rights is a given. The only strain is how to break the news to her wouldbe baby daddy: a nice, conservative-ish business guy (Jake Lacy) who seems to find her equal parts fetching and mystifying — like an alien species living in an alternate universe across from civilized Manhattan.

Jenny Slate (in the box) has a pretty good rom-com partner in Jake Lacy. Credit: Chris Teague
Jenny Slate (in the box) has a pretty good rom-com partner in Jake Lacy.
Credit: Chris Teague

This makes “Obvious Child” sound more farcical than it is. It could certainly stand a bit more streamlining; often times the plotting herky jerks, getting lost in digressions and puttering through its short running time. Its shagginess is supposed to be part of its charm, and it is, for the most part. In fact, it buys into the same belief that fueled the comedies of classic comics, like W.C. Fields — that the plot is there to buttress one-liners. Slate’s schtick is familiar but very funny, with a disheveled loopiness that makes the parade of humiliations — from romantic to mundane, like deafening Brooklyn heaters during the winter — if not fresh then fresh enough.

Donna/Slate is also repeatedly told she’s talented, which might have been irritating if she was the only funny person in the film. But Slate is surrounded with plenty of others — not just comics, like David Cross, as a passive-aggressively lecherous colleague, but Lacy, who’s a winningly fumbling romantic lead. Even better is Gaby Hoffman, who walks a thin line between funny and real as Donna’s warm but no-nonsense roommate. Hoffman helps blur the line between random absurdity and realistic pain, something in which “Obvious Child” could be more interested. As such, it seems less like a film about characters using humor to mask misery than a film not ready to deal with the misery it’s brought up.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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