Gillian Robespierre’s canny, taut “Obvious Child,” a distinctly contemporary comedy, is rich in people talk and how some people swear and how modern audiences laugh, shocked, with gratitude. And lead actress Jenny Slate? Here comes a great comedy star in a smart, conversational, bluntly funny, certainly subversive romcom. Simply: the plot pivots on an unwanted pregnancy.
At Sundance 2014, “Obvious Child” was that rare, total surprise for me, a press screening I ducked into after Park City, Utah’s insane traffic problems prevented me from getting to yet another movie across town. Didn’t know any of the names, Brooklyn, thirtysomething romantic comedy, just over eighty minutes. Everyone’s always hoping for the platonic ideal of what Woody Allen represented in romantic comedy in the 1970s. And the title? What on earth did that title mean?
“So you’re a ‘Graceland’ guy, not a ‘Rhythm of the Saints’ guy,” lead actress Jenny Slate says when we meet, laughing, sitting alongside her near-lookalike, co-writer-director Gillian Robespierre, who directed Slate in a short version of the material in 2009. “Paul Simon song,” Robespierre says, nodding.
The economy and brevity of “Obvious Child” are among its strengths, along with excellent casting that includes the indelible Gaby Hoffmann as an old friend. A long gestation period can beat material into the ground, but this movie’s eighty-three-minute running time is politely compact, Woody Allen-length.
“Yes, he was definitely somebody that we paid homage to and definitely wanted to stay in that realm of comedy running time. Telling a story and getting in and out,” Robespierre says. “The script was only like ninety pages.
“Comedies,” she continues, “should be short.” Even if it takes a very long time to get to that point? “The five years that it took all made sense, and it all makes sense to me now,” Robespierre says. “We made this short, then Jenny got on ‘SNL,’ and I went to festivals with the short and I also had a day job for seven years at the Directors Guild of America, and it’s a lot about nights and weekends. Writing, taking long weekends and not going to the beach but writing a script. And then developing it and finding the proper voice to expand [the material] in the way that was the most comfortable for Donna, for the character. Then, each year, we got older, and Donna got older, and it all made sense to make her a stand-up. That wasn’t originally in the short, that came in year three, or four, maybe. It was great, because I became a better writer, a more confident director, and Jenny was off making these amazing characters on television. We always had this in our back pocket, we always knew this was something we were going to come back to.”
Part of the film’s immense charm is its matter-of-factness, it plays like the characters know and like each other. “Thank you!” they say in unison.
“Yes,” Robespierre says, “I definitely wanted this to be a straightforward story about this woman’s life and how she’s dealing with being in this sort-of adolescence where she’s not quite sure who she is, she’s a little unconfident when it comes to her inner voice, off the stage. Onstage, she’s pretty confident and I think that’s where she’s empowered and has a lot of strength, she gets dumped, her passivity comes out. She’s a passive person, I think, even before that happens. So then when she loses that confidence, that is a really fun place to take a character, and let them do a lot of self-sabotaging things like stalking, drinking too much and drinking and drinking—”
“—And drinking more,” Slate adds.
“And having sex with a stranger. All of those are very fun places to go. Destructive! But fun,” Robespierre says.
There’s a scene where Donna, helping pack up a bookstore, winds up sitting inside a moving box. She’s turned feline, and there’s the obvious symbolic gag, “You can’t put me in a box! I put myself in a box!” Slate smiles. “Yeah, she does put herself in the box. It’s really simple, although what happens to Donna isn’t simple, and she’s not a simpleton or a simple person, but the story, to me, it’s not frivolous or glib. That’s why I felt like I could really focus and plug into it. I understood everything.”
Donna’s male suitor is almost a reverse-angle simple blonde character. “Obvious Child” has fun pretending that’s who he is, but revealing more about him in each encounter. Nobody’s rescuing each other, but the two of them are allowed a slow, dawning realization, “Hey, we actually like each other!” “We make fun of him a little bit. I think it’s well-deserved,” Robespierre says.
It’s comic exaggeration, but you’re not indulging hostility or contempt, as other comedies might. “There’s no contempt at all. And you know, he can give it back to her, but you can tell how much, for him, it feels a bit new. Their restaurant banter is so funny and so sweet, it’s like him saying, I’m speaking your language, you little weirdo. It’s him being vulnerable. He sees her as a funny person. It’s hard to be funny if it’s not your first reaction in front of someone funny. She lets him. And he’s good at it.”
“Obvious Child” opens Friday, June 13. The trailer and a clip are below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.