Give writer/director Gillian Robespierre credit for even attempting with "Obvious Child" to make a romantic comedy built around a woman's decision to have an abortion after a close encounter of the getting pregnant kind. Just being called an "abortion comedy" is enough to incite mobs to grab torches and pitchforks.
At the heart of this small film is stand-up comic Donna Stern (Jenny Slate). Her material is based on her own life and suddenly there's a wealth of ideas as she gets dumped by her longtime boyfriend and loses her job.
Her life gets even more complicated when a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy) — a guy so sweet he could kill a diabetic — leaves her pregnant. Donna immediately decides to have an abortion.
The way Robespierre handles such an incredibly delicate topic is not to make the jokes about having an abortion but have the comedy come from the nervousness and uncertainties Donna has about her life and this massive decision. The comedy feels natural because it's well-established that Donna deals with everything in her life with a joke.
A bigger problem is that the comedy is so inconsistent. Moments between Donna and those around her — especially with her parents played by Richard Kind and Polly Draper — are filled with light comic moments. These scenes establish a very firm foundation of where Donna gets her quick wit. But, even at a scant 83 minutes running time, the film has some big voids filled with wasted scenes — such as a dance-off between Donna and Max. A better use of the time would have helped give the movie a little more depth.
What brings the film to a stop are the stand-up scenes. They are so flat and rambling that in the real world, she would have been run off the stage by a rowdy crowd.
There's something very likable about Slate. Part of that comes from the vulnerability and emotions she portrays when dealing with the world. She does a great job playing Donna as the kind of person who is capable of taking care of herself but is just fragile enough to let other people come into her life.
It's her performance that keeps the comedy in check. Had the role been played too broadly or too mellow, the jokes would have come across as insensitive and appalling.
The film's slow pacing and spirited banter makes it feel like a perfect entry for a small film festival. Opening the movie in the summer is like throwing a kitten into a lion's den. It might find a way to survive but the odds are higher it's going to be eaten alive.
"Obvious Child," rated R for language, sexual content. Stars Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy. Directed by Gillian Robespierre. Running time: 83 minutes. Grade: C-