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Obvious Child

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 4, 2014 at 2:02 a.m.

Obvious Child

88 Cast: Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffmann, Jake Lacy, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, David Cross, Gabe Liedman, Cindy Cheung

Director: Gillian Robespierre

Rating: R, for language and sexual content

Running time: 84 minutes

In the real world, people often say (and sometimes do) things that they might not want presented to strangers gathered in an auditorium. I can say absolutely horrible things in jest to people who understand that I am joking. In our most private moments, some of us at least, voice terrible thoughts.

Some brave people will say these things in performance. We call these people comedians and the reason we laugh at their jokes is not because they think up scenarios that are completely alien to us but because they touch upon the deeply specific feelings we habitually repress. The hardest thing for a would-be artist -- for a writer or a singer or a painter of light -- to be is thoroughly and deeply honest about how it feels to be alive.

Obvious Child is not a perfect movie. It didn't strike me as a terrifically well-acted or plotted film, although it told its story -- about a woman who gets dumped, has a one-night stand and ends up pregnant -- effectively enough. I couldn't decide whether Jenny Slate's comedic monologues in the film -- she delivers them in character as Donna Stern, a struggling open-miker rather than a polished pro -- were supposed to be as, well, ragged as they were. In other words, were these uneven routines the product of a great performance or simply uneven routines?

In the end, maybe it doesn't matter, for they were effective. While it's ironic that the comic monologues are maybe the least funny part of this scarifying rom-com, they do provide insight into Donna's character and the way she processes information. Listen past her potty mouth and you might understand she has a lot invested in being honest with herself and with her audience.

Obvious Child takes its title from a late-model Paul Simon song, one of those that juxtaposes jaunty rhythms with downbeat lyrics. At first I thought that was incongruous -- you hear the song in the film (what did that cost them?) -- but the song itself is about what Walker Percy called the "everydayness" of life, about the feeling of being exhausted by the ordinary. Its plot is simple -- a couple get together, have fun, and have a son who grows up to be disappointed and sad.

But there's something else. The song is about, as Prince once said, getting through this thing called life. It's about it being hard but possible. It's about hanging tough. So maybe it is appropriate here.

It's terribly reductive to describe Obvious Child as a pro-abortion movie. I don't know that it is that; all I know is that people like Donna, who make mistakes and have regrets, exist in the world. And that people make the sort of decisions that she makes in the movie. And that they go on with their lives. Maybe sometimes they think about what they've done, maybe they don't. That's reality.

In 1989, Woody Allen made one his best movies, Crimes and Misdemeanors. It was about an ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) who, rather than see his personal life blown up by an inconvenient mistress (Anjelica Huston), has her killed. In the end, the ophthalmologist gets away with it. He was wracked by guilt for a while, but he got through it. When the film ends, he is enjoying life again. I don't recall anyone saying Woody Allen made a pro-murder movie.

When I say Obvious Child reminds me of Crimes and Misdemeanors I am not suggesting that Donna gets away with murder in the film. (I don't really think any of us get away with anything.) I don't see Obvious Child as a political film with an agenda beyond making us laugh at its uncomfortable reality. I see it as a movie about the ways certain kinds of young adults live now. It is about what it is like to be an arrested adolescent pushing 30 without much hope for achieving what previous generations took for granted. It's about falling in love with someone unlikely. It's about having something bad happen -- about a preventable accident and the costs of that accident.

What I like about Obvious Child is that it doesn't flinch -- it doesn't run away from the subject of abortion like most movies (and some movie reviews) do. If you go into it looking for a hammer with which to batter writer-director Gillian Robespierre, well, she has left plenty lying around. Help yourself.

Or you can just go and watch it and maybe appreciate the world that Robespierre has built and populated with likable actors who say the sorts of things that real people say. (Except for David Cross, who arguably isn't playing a real person anyway.) And you can laugh at it; it's really OK, because people do that, even when -- especially when -- things are really bad.

And at the end of it, no matter what your politics, maybe you can hope that things work out for Donna. Maybe, no matter how you vote, you can muster some empathy for the Obvious Child.

MovieStyle on 07/04/2014

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