September 26, 2017

Posted June 20, 2014 by D. K. Holm

Obvious Child is the latest mumblecore-curious indie rom-com, and looks to become a modest hit as an anti-Juno as it tells the tale of a stand up comedienne who becomes pregnant after a drunken one-night-stand and chooses to dispense with the fetus. Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, from what feels like an autobiographical impulse, and starring Jenny Slate in the leading role, also perhaps with an autobiographical or personal angle, Obvious Child, attempts to strike a blow for independently minded women who wish not to bow down to the new political correctness, one tenet of which is that no movie or TV show shall ever endorse abortion as a reasonable choice.

The only drawback in this attempt is that the central character, Donna Stern, is so unpleasant that any argument on her behalf for her political choices made by the film are undermined by cinema’s inevitable tilt toward the personal. There is no reason why an unpleasant person should have less right to an abortion than a pleasant person, but in the current polarized climate an entertainment that strays into the political takes on shades and meanings and responsibilities it may not intend or want.

Ms Slate is famous for among other things reputedly being fired from Saturday Night Live by inadvertently vocalizing an F-Bomb on live TV. (1) Since then she has appeared in numerous TV show episodes and done voice work in animated films. Her Donna Stern is a twentysomething self-absorbed, frivolous, selfish, and with a knack for turning her friends and family into a support group for her trivial problems. She works in a bookstore but is never show reading a book, talking about a book or movie, or discussing anything but herself. Her stand up act is all about her, without mention of politics, culture, other people, or outside life. She shows little interest in her best friends, the obligatory gay male Max (Jake Lacy) or her other best friend Nellie  (Gaby Hoffmann) and the movie itself tells us nothing of them beyond the obvious, therefore underscoring the Sternian world view that fails to extent into the world itself. Her father Jacob (TV’s Richard Kind) is upbeat and supportive, while her Nancy (TV’s Polly Draper, from that previous exercise in self-absorption, thirtysomething) is an academic with whom she has the inevitable but unstated “issues” but who nevertheless drops everything to cuddle and coddle her offspring. And what inspires all this sturm und drang and mishigas? Her boyfriend dumped her. In other words, the world came to an end and the universe collapsed. In typical rom-com tradition, Donna becomes a stalker, a drunk dialer, and all the other clichés we have seen so many times before. She is such an unpleasant character even her emotional pain is mediocre.

Donna’s frivolousness and unconcern for others is not just a sociological symptom of the Girls generation. This personality undermines the generous impulse of the film, which endeavors to make us feel OK about abortion. Instead, the right can point to her character and declare, “See! This is why abortion is a terrible act. Empty-headed, ill-educated youngsters who only think of themselves use it as birth control, ending a life because it doesn’t fit into their lifestyle.” The right doesn’t need any extra help these days. With film friends like these …

Donna’s shortsightedness may be a component of her profession. A stand up comic, these days, is ipso facto a narcissist with low self-esteem. With an appropriate name change the movie could be called Louise. But there is a significant difference between Obvious Child and Louie C. K.’s program. One of the striking thing about Mr. K.’s show is the disparity between the Louie on the stage and the Louie in “real life.” Backed by the usual brick wall, Louie leans against it and philosophizes about the comical unfairnesses and hypocrisies of everyday life, a Wittgenstein of the weltanschauung. Off stage he is an angry, frustrated, put upon good guy with a few flaws, like an occasional attempted rape.(2) Part of Louie’s persona is that he says the things that we all think but rarely if ever say or admit, such as that playing games with your children is really boring.

Truth-telling is the secret genius of stand up comedy, one of the three neglected or under-recognized great art forms of the 20th century.(3) Lenny Bruce talked about his life and his court trials, but also his culture and politics, as did Mort Sahl. Observational humor came to the fore with Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart, and later Seinfeld, but there was still room for a wide range of topics, as with George Carlin and Bill Hicks. And that’s the point. Stand up can go anywhere, discuss anything, all from a little stage and a baby spot. Donna betrays the art form by focusing on the contours of her trauma. And worst of all, she isn’t funny about abortion.

1. The viewer can see from Ms Slate’s own reaction to what she said that the slip was an accident. She makes a brief balloon-mouthed “blew it” expression. The word came out in a skit about the-then obsessive use of the benign substitutive “freakin”” by average Joes and Janes.

2. Though his intended victim, an ex-girlfriend, notes that he can’t even rape right.

3. The other two are radio and comic books.