‘Obvious Child’ shocks, amuses
How do you make an abortion funny? In this age of political correctness and verbal thin ice, director Gillian Robespierre’s 2014 crass, honest romantic comedy, “Obvious Child,” is a breath of fresh air that answers this question.
The film opens as 28-year-old stand-up comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) tells a vagina joke, and then identifies herself as the byproduct of a menorah and Natalie Imbruglia. A minute into her set, she tells her audience, “You probably think I’m a horrible person.” And many audience members do. Stern’s humor centers around vaginas, farts and Judaism; this isn’t “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) or “Manhattan” (1979), but a trial by fire.
To defend this vulgarity, let me step back a bit. Comedy, in essence, is a release. It’s our reaction to the unveiling of a gap between our perceptions and reality. According to the late eminent comic theorist and French philosopher Henri Bergson, any incident that calls our attention to the physical part of a person, when the moral part should be more important, is comic.
This is the ideological base for Stern’s humor. She gets her pregnancy test results in a bathroom while her friend is pooping, gets an abortion on Valentine’s Day and refers to sex without a condom as “Russian roulette with your vagina.” By saying what no one will, she takes the taboo and makes it digestible. Leave your political correctness and sensitivity at the door, or prepare to see them attacked.
Stern is a less garrulous Groucho Marx, complete with feminist sensibilities. She uses snarky retorts like weapons. They are both anarchistic comedians, brutalizing others using farce and wit. This behavior alienates Stern’s first boyfriend, who breaks up with her early on in a graffitied, unisex bathroom to the din of flushing toilets and urine streams. Her “Unimpressive, Non-Imperialist, Bargain Book Store” will close in a month, and her standup is floundering in self-pity and nihilistic cynicism. Thus begins Stern’s emotional tailspin.
Enter Max (Jake Lacy), an average Joe who keeps up with Stern’s humor and rescues her after a bitter, cringe-worthy standup routine. They flirt, they get drunk, they dance a bit and then they have a one-night stand. What happens next is a funnier, more sincere version of Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” (2007).
Slate, a former Saturday Night Live cast member, was known for her doorbell pitchwoman character Tina Tina Cheneuse and impressions of Lady Gaga and Hoda Kotb. The real-life comedian has mastered delivery. Her jokes are articulated so naturally, with an authenticity reminiscent of mumblecore or French new wave dialogue, that I wondered if she were merely improvising and a camera happened to be recording. The humanity Slate instills in Stern, in both comic and solemn scenes, is enviable. Slate’s performance and character conjures Ellen Page’s “Juno” (2007) and lifts the film above the oftentimes histrionic performances of “Knocked Up.”
But between the rib tickling and knee slapping that lies at its heart, the film focuses on a woman unraveling at the confusing hands of abortion. Bergson once said that laughter has no greater enemy than emotion. The comic demands a momentary anesthesia of the heart. With her film, Robespierre belies Bergson. Again, laughter is a release. The sympathy we build for Stern emotionally connects actor and audience, which Stern then breaks with a smelly synagogue joke. Laughter fills that new emotional void.
The flinty man behind me in the theater chuckled nervously during several scenes while muttering “oh my God, oh my God” at most of the jokes. Bergson believed we live lives of comatose stasis and myopia, from which comedy awakens us. “Obvious Child” was likely Robespierre’s attempt to shock, unsettle, and hopefully awaken the man behind me and others to their conservatism. This film may unnerve some and delight others, but it will certainly move all.
“Obvious Child” is playing daily at the Nugget at 4:20 p.m., 6:50 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.