Review: Jenny Slate makes a delightful leading lady in 'Obvious Child'
PARK CITY - Those of us who have never seen a single episode of "Saturday Night Live" have a somewhat stymied relationship with a vast network of variously talented performers -- with their backstories and creative personae largely unfamiliar to us, they often arrive as blank slates when they finally make the jump to the big screen. That can be a drawback in film vehicles that are essentially extensions of their "SNL" shtick, but it can also make for unexpected, preconception-free discoveries, and so it is with Jenny Slate. I may know little about her apparently uneven TV career, but I now know from "Obvious Child," a winning slacker comedy from first-time writer-director Gillian Robespierre, that Slate has the makings of a rather special movie star: lovably gawky, casually relatable and very, very funny.
With Lena Dunham's "Girls" still a pop-culture touchstone, and Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's "Frances Ha" earning critical applause far beyond its young female remit, the media would have you believe we're in a kind of golden age for what they rather patronizingly term "real women." I'm not sure what exactly constitutes a "fake woman," but it's true that we seem to be enjoying a spike of popular interest in unvarnished, independent female narratives, particularly in the sphere of human comedy.
Earthy, a little dirty and acing the ubiquitous Bechdel Test several times over, "Obvious Child" follows in this hopefully permanent tradition. Set as it amid the shaggy creative set of modern Brooklyn, it will be dismissed by some critics as a more televisual response to "Frances Ha," though that'd be overly hasty: there's a salty feminist streak to this roundabout tale of quarter-life crisis that stands on its own.
"Obvious Child" comes on pretty strong on that front: Slate plays Donna, a 27-year-old stand-up comic whose act hinges on wince-worthy oversharing, and an opening monologue that mines the comic properties of her own vagina initially promises something less universal and more abrasive than the warmly candid romantic comedy Robespierre has in mind. Donna, it turns out, is more comfortable sharing the hardest details of her life with audience of strangers than with those closest to her, be it her befuddled boyfriends or her cautiously concerned mom. Inner and outer confidence are married over the course of Robespierre's episodic narrative, but at some painful personal cost.
Like so many self-help stories, it begins with a classic one-two of personal crises: shortly after being dumped without anaesthetic by unfaithful boyfriend Joey (Gabe Liedman), she also loses her day job as a bookstore clerk. Recovery, in at least one department, is so swift she scarcely trusts herself to pursue it: a one-night stand with kind-hearted, squarely handsome Max (Jake Lacy) promises a secure relationship that she does her best to postpone -- until, at least, she finds herself most unwelcomely pregnant.
It's a familiar setup that Robespierre handles with unusually brisk liberal pragmatism: rare is the American film that depicts the abortion process as a personal rather than a moral choice, and while Donna can’t resist finding morbid humor in the situation both on and off stage, the film handles her bittersweet decision with a tender, moving grace. Key to this is the wobbly, ill-timed progress of her affair with Max, a surefire candidate for the most unflappably nice male love interest ever devised for cinema. Some might have reservations about a story of contemporary femininity that hinges on the protagonist’s getting over one man by, well, getting under another, but there’s something “Obvious Child” isn’t a story of independence so much as mature partnership.
Well, within limits. For all the deft work from the supporting ensemble (Gaby Hoffmann brings welcome vim and texture to the mandatory best-friend role), this is still a one-woman showcase, as Slate grabs a role evidently tailored to her ribald comic abilities and revels in its loose threads and honest imperfections. A gifted, zappy physical comedienne, she also projects a native understanding of how any comic reveals themselves on stage – the state of being oneself, only a little more so. This generous, hilarious character study suggests Jenny Slate has more still to offer.