A stand-up gal: ‘Obvious Child’ mixes emotion and humor to make a rom-com worth watching

By JIM SABATASO | STAFF

The most controversial thing about Obvious Child is how uncontroversial it is. The new comedy by first-time director Gillian Robespierre stars Jenny Slate as Donna, a struggling Brooklyn standup comic, who, after a boozy one-night stand, discovers she’s pregnant and decides to get an abortion.

That wasn’t a spoiler. While the film isn’t blasé about the subject — Donna’s doctor and roommate, and mother all provide counsel — it doesn’t dwell on it either. Donna knows she’s not ready to have a child, and confidently and maturely makes a choice that many women have made before her.

At 83 minutes, the film is brisk, but, nonetheless, manages to deliver both on emotion and humor. It may feel thin at times, but that’s a minor criticism compared to everything it does right. While that breeziness may strike some viewers as glib considering the subject matter — I’m sure some conservatives viewers would say as much, or worse — it’s difficult to read the film that way unless you’re out to make that particular point.

Obvious Child is charming, smart, and consistently funny. Strictly speaking, it’s a romantic comedy — all the tropes are there — but with such a strong script, talented cast, and confident direction, you barely notice.

At the top of that cast is Jenny Slate, a great comic talent who’s been flying under the radar for a while now. Hopefully, this film will change that. You might recognize her from her brief stint on Saturday Nigh Live — she was the one who dropped the F-bomb a few years back — before she was let go at the season’s end. While her termination clearly stung — she has intimated as much in interviews — I’d argue that it was for the best. The show’s rote format only held her back, as every project she’s done since has proven. Let’s face it; SNL is an institution, but it’s no longer the place to look for groundbreaking comedy.

Slate has been steadily building her résumé through various web series (Bestie x BestieCatherine), as well as regular guest spots on Bob’s BurgersParks and Recreation, and House of Lies. She’s also a featured player on Kroll Show, where her loud, over-the-top characters have found a home on the reality TV themed sketch show.

With Obvious Child, Slate digs deeper and, like many comedians, mines the pathos. In her late 20s, Donna is a bit of a mess: a hard drinking, unemployed, struggling comic, who falls into a spiral of despair and alcohol following a breakup. It’s a sad state that Slate plays for dark laughs. Her cringe-worthy post-breakup comedy set is a belligerent, late-night drunk-dial brought to the stage.

Playing opposite Slate is Jake Lacy as Max, a sweet, aww-shucks kind of guy (from Vermont!) whose easy chemistry with Donna culminates in the infamous hookup. Onscreen, Slate and Lacy are a fun, natural pairing. Slate’s weird energy is countered by Lacy’s straight-man disposition. It’s another classic rom-com trope done well, echoing great comic couplings like Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, or Leslie and Ben from Parks and Rec.

Lacy, who grew up in Pittsford, Vt., and attended Otter Valley Union High School, is another comic actor to watch. Following a short-lived sitcom on ABC, Lacy landed a regular role on the final season of The Office, where he played Pete (a.k.a., “Plop”), who along with Ellie Kemper, was one of the few highlights of the show’s otherwise forgettable end run.

Rounding out the small, but excellent cast is Richard Kind and Polly Draper as Donna’s divorced parents, and Gabby Hoffman as Donna’s roommate Nellie. Gabe Liedman and David Cross also show up in fun minor roles as fellow standups.

Obvious Child’s director and lead actors find strength in their youth. Their willingness to bring a fresh take to an old genre — trading off tired sentimentality for sharp laughs and earnest emotion — is commendable. And for the most part it works. There is a lot of talent here, and it’s exciting to think about what each of them will do next.

BONUS: Enjoy this NSFW-ish clip of Jenny Slate and Pete Holmes “Gabbin’ Like Gals.”

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