Friday, June 27, 2014

Obvious Child: Needs to grow a bit

Obvious Child (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon collaborated on a 16mm short film initially called Planetfall while students at USC’s film school in the early 1970s; it was expanded for theatrical release in 1974, now titled Dark Star, and quickly became a cult classic. Carpenter went on to a lucrative career highlighted by Halloween and Escape from New York; O’Bannon made his bones as a screenwriter, notably with Alien and many other horror and sci-fi projects.

On the sad day that Donna (Jenny Slate) packs up books — her final act as clerk of a
bookstore forced to close — she gets a surprise visit from Max (Jake Lacy), who
manages to bring a smile to her face. Whether she'll agree to his gentle push for an
actual date, however, is another matter.
A few years earlier, in 1967, George Lucas made a 15-minute short titled THX 1138 4EB, also while a student at USC’s film school. It, too, was expanded to feature length with a slightly shorter title — THX 1138 — and was released commercially in 1971, now starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence, and became both a cult classic and Lucas’ first directorial credit. He went on to make American Graffiti and, well, a certain sci-fi epic that took place in a galaxy far, far away.

Obvious Child began life in 2009, as a 23-minute short film written by Anna Bean, Karen Maine and Gillian Robespierre, and directed by Robespierre. Encouraging reviews at various film festivals encouraged Robespierre and star Jenny Slate to re-make the film for feature release, with an expanded cast and running time. A Kickstarter campaign raised the funds to get it placed at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where indie distributor A24 picked it up and now has brought it to a theater near you.

Its occasional merits aside, however, I rather doubt Robespierre will go on to the sort of career enjoyed by Carpenter, O’Bannon and Lucas.

Slate, however, should get a pretty good bump. She’s been all over TV for the past five years, from Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, to House of Lies and Parks and Recreation. She capably handles a big-screen starring role here, establishing a warm and delectably snarky persona.

Moving forward, though, she needs better material.

The major problem is that Obvious Child still feels like a 23-minute film, albeit one that has been padded with a lot of extraneous “stuff” in order to beef it up into an 84-minute feature. Several sequences do little but fill time, to the detriment of the story being told, and at least one sidebar is completely pointless.

And since Robespierre now has taken the primary scripting credit for this longer version, she’s clearly the one to blame. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss Maine and Bean (although Maine and newcomer Elisabeth Holm do share a “story by” credit here).

It’s a simple little tale: Aspiring stand-up comic Donna Stern (Slate), having just been dumped by her boyfriend, hooks up with nice guy Max (Jake Lacy) for a one-night stand of unwisely unprotected sex, and winds up pregnant. Having also lost her Greenwich Village day job, and now with no means of financial support, she faces the obvious decision regarding the pregnancy, and whether this choice should involve Max, basically a total stranger.

Perfectly acceptable romantic comedies have been fashioned from much less, but this one isn’t destined to join them.

The trouble begins immediately, as we get protracted exposure to Donna’s stand-up act. The material just isn’t very good, although we’re supposed to think it’s both funny and sharply observant of the female condition. Mostly, it’s just vulgar, with jokes about day-old underwear worn far beyond their ability to support even a giggle.

The film is on firmer ground once Donna gets off the stage, gets dumped and goes into an amusing spiral of “revenge” phone calls to the dirt bag former boyfriend. She draws solace from best friend and roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) and comedy club manager Joey (Gabe Liedman), both of whom encourage her to work this heartbreak into her already revealing act. (The results aren’t pretty.)

The film’s funniest joke is a sight gag: the sign for a bookstore improbably called Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Books, where Donna has worked as a clerk for five years. Alas, circumstances have forced the store’s closure, which sends Donna even further into her self-pitying spin.

She keeps in close touch with both parents, divorced for an unspecified time. Dad (Richard Kind, a nice surprise) offers kind encouragement and a comfort-food spaghetti dinner. Sadly, this is his only appearance; I guess Robespierre couldn’t talk him into more than a walk-on.

Polly Draper gets more time as Donna’s mildly condescending mother, Nancy, who disapproves of her daughter’s career choice and wishes she’d do something “serious.” But Nancy’s role isn’t one-note; Draper brings unexpected sympathy and emotional depth to a later mother/daughter chat, when Donna is at low ebb.

Lacy is charm personified. In lesser hands, Max would be too good to be true; he’s the original Nice Guy who definitely, absolutely wouldn’t let a woman down. Trouble is, the once-burned Donna isn’t willing to accept this obvious fact at face value, even though Max exceeds all compassionate expectations at every opportunity. Lacy makes these virtues credible, turning Max into the guy we all wish could live next door.

Slate and Lacy banter well, both quick with well-timed zingers; they also share warm chemistry. They work well together, from the awkward bar hook-up that leads to lively intimacy, to after-the-fact encounters as Max attempts to gain Donna’s trust. We recognize this scenario: The guy likes the girl, suspects she likes him back, but can’t get beyond her emotional barriers. How long, then, does he continue to try?

The story’s most welcome element, however, is the sympathetic tone given Donna’s anguish over what to do about her unplanned pregnancy. The frank, nonjudgmental discussion of abortion as a viable option is guaranteed to make this film a lightning rod for controversy, particularly if encouraging word-of-mouth fuels wider release in more conservative parts of the country.

Robespierre is wisely uncomfortable over her film having been tagged as an “abortion comedy,” which unfairly trivializes the storyline (and isn’t really accurate, either). Yet it’s destined to be viewed that way by right-to-lifers, who will castigate Obvious Child without bothering to watch it, thereby missing its all-important message: Young women make this choice all the time, and shouldn’t be shunned or condemned for their eventual decision, either way.

Similarly, we should celebrate the script’s gentle honesty, with respect to this topic ... although I’m not persuaded that a comedy club stage is the best place for Donna to explore her thoughts, even though I get the metaphor. Once again, we’re expected to believe that her resulting stand-up routine is innovatively fresh, candid and amusing ... but I wasn’t sold.

Hoffmann is properly comforting as Donna’s BFF, and Liedman is equally warm as the cheerfully gay Joey. On the other hand, ubiquitous comedy star David Cross is completely wasted in a superfluous scene as Sam, an acquaintance who quite clumsily attempts to get Donna into bed. The character, and this plot hiccup, do nothing but waste time.

Robespierre also errs with her placement of music: too much, too often, sometimes even mixed at a level that interferes with our ability to hear the actors deliver their dialogue. The songs themselves are a nice mix of ballads and pop hits from Small Black, Rarechild, The London Souls and Scout Niblett, among others, with prominent placement given Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child,” which encourages us to contemplate who, precisely, is this story’s obvious child.

Given the nice touch she has with her actors, particularly Slate and Lacy, I’m inclined to believe that Robespierre has genuine talent as a director ... but not as a writer. Moving forward, I’d like to see how she handles scripts delivered by other, better, scribes.

Meanwhile, I can’t help smiling with fondness over this story’s many meet-cute encounters between Donna and Max, and the warmth and whimsical chemistry shared by Slate and Lacy. The closing scene is one such high spot: a good note on which to conclude.

Too bad the rest of the film can’t live up to such moments.

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