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'Obvious Child' more traditional than it lets on

There are advantages to being older, trust me. You know things.

It isn’t what’s so palpably fresh about Gillian Robespierre’s romantic comedy “Obvious Child” that struck me the most, it’s what’s so very, very familiar.

There was a very good 1963 movie – yes, 1963 – starring Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen in which, after a one-night stand, the female half of a momentary couple finds herself pregnant.

Obviously, the subject of abortion in 1963 – when it was illegal and difficult and perilous – is a very different subject than it is now in a movie set in 2014 Brooklyn, but I found the suddenness of stand-up comedian Donna Stern’s predicament in the 2014 film weirdly reminiscent of 1963.

At the same time, all through “Obvious Child,” the aggressively young female tone of the comedy and the relationships is very much part of the world we’re living in now, a world whose most influential female comedy of the moment seems to be Lena Dunham’s “Girls” on HBO. Nothing would be easier than locating “Obvious Child” in a genealogy as an offshoot of Dunham’s “Girls.”

Nope. That’s not even close to accurate. “Obvious Child” is a 90-minute film that was made from a 20-minute short by writer/director Gillian Robespierre first shown in 2009, a while before Dunham’s first movie “Tiny Furniture” was seen. Dunham and Robespierre, then, are very much sisters in a new and delightfully fresh way of perceiving comic female identity struggles in this world.

We’ve seen more than our share of struggling, clueless men in the movies. Their immaturity is ubiquitous. We’re now seeing lifestyles of often clueless young women in our comedies, whether it’s HBO’s “Girls” or “Frances Ha!” or this movie, starring comic Jenny Slate as Brooklyn stand-up comic Donna Stern whose act defines itself in its opening minutes by declaring to the audience “there is no woman that ends the day with a clean pair of underpants.”

From there her act goes into gas-passing and a mock-genteel inquiry about whether anyone in the audience needs a “barf bag” yet.

The men and women in the small club are both laughing, to be sure, but they’re laughing differently. Both find her funny but for different reasons. Men are laughing at a common humanity relieving them of the sole responsibility for raunch. Women are laughing at a kind of communal raunch they might share with screaming pleasure among themselves but are very gingerly about doing in front of men.

Donna, then, hasn’t exactly erected many barriers between her stand-up act and her life. Which is, no doubt, one reason why her boyfriend dumps her in favor of Donna’s less dedicated and less confused (supposedly) good pal.

“Obvious Child” then gives us a lot of weepy breakup humor, female style – all of it familiar but all of it endearing, too.

And that is what we’re watching here for much of this likable but conspicuously little movie that is so obviously part of much larger things – a new female way of making comedy about emerging young women and, most importantly in “Obvious Child,” a frank and fresh way of presenting and thinking about abortion.

It is there that “Obvious Child” has received the most praise and for the most understandable reasons. This is a 2014 romantic comedy about abortion as a fact of life with no Gothic overhang and no reference to those who think of the subject as a subset of either religion or politics or both. In its unwavering little movie way, “Obvious Child” has entered fresh territory.

Donna – played by Slate – knows she’s far from ready to be a mother, especially because of her two divorced parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper). Her mother is, superficially, a demanding and undemonstrative college professor. Her father is a fanciful, quasi-Muppets puppeteer.

Donna knows that she can’t begin to manage herself let alone the life and needs of a little one.

It is the guy in this case who is a mystery – which, again, was the plot linchpin of “Love With a Proper Stranger” back in 1963. The relationship is attacked in different ways but the romantic comedy results now 40 years later aren’t all that hugely different, despite the very different attitudes toward pregnancy, abortion and what’s funny.

“Obvious Child” is nothing if not likable. But it takes its cue from Slate’s comedy as Donna. Eddie Murphy once confessed that so much of his early act was about bathroom matters because at that point in his life, going to the bathroom was about all he’d done in his life that an audience might connect with.

This is a very struggling comedy about a very struggling young heroine – endearing, clumsy and nothing if not fresh in its candor but in no discernible way yet, part of a world of accomplishment and direction.

It’s the world of a very, very smart young woman who knows she’s an “Obvious Child” in any grand scheme of things, a young woman who’s been created for us by people who are, obviously, still rooted there more than a little no matter what stage their life is in now.

It’s the next film by Slate and Robespierre that will, I think, be really fascinating.


3 stars

Starring: Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Jake Lacy, Richard Kind, Polly Draper

Director: Gillian Robespierre

Running time: 84 minutes

Rating: R for language and sexual content.

The Lowdown: Romantic comedy about a struggling young Brooklyn comic who gets dumped and pregnant and faces the decision of her young life.


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