Have you ever experienced that moment where the adults are having a complex and in depth discussion on a touchy subject, and a less-than-adult person sputters out something profoundly ignorant. Todd Akin ring a bell? Well friends, it’s time to meet the new sputterer: the independent movie Obvious Child.
Spoiler alert, though there’s little to spoil!
Story? What’s that?
It’s never a good sign if a movie is super reminiscent of The Room. The difference between the two? Obvious Child tries to be intentionally funny and flops big time. Plot lines are picked up and forgotten, there are useless nagging conversations with parent characters and even the unexplained entrance and exit of ‘Sam’ (David Cross) has an uncanny resemblance to Steven (Greg Ellery) in The Room (I wanted to shout out “Who are you?!” like the interactive audiences of Johnny Wiseau’s film).
What plot-driving action the film possesses climaxes within the first ten minutes. Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), a comedian by night, gets dumped by her boyfriend and proceeds to binge drink and whine for like half-an-hour of screen time. I wanted it to end, but would have changed my mind if I knew what was coming.
The rest of the movie consists of Donna learning that the book store (her day job) is closing down, finding a love interest and getting pregnant. Combine all this with the choice to have an abortion and she almost gives enough drama to equal the emotional power of the break up and whining, but not quite.
The abortion from Donna’s point of view is neither a debated choice nor a source of deep anxiety. For Donna the procedure seems about as mundane as getting braces. From a purely fiction-oriented perspective this notion (considering its place in the plot) is in complete opposition with a healthy story. In the 2007 film Juno, the stakes of an unplanned pregnancy are incredibly high (in all their permutations: abortion, adoption, etc.); which is perfect for engaging the audience. Obvious Child downplays the stakes of a similar situation, which works against any sort of investment in the plot.
Character Development? That’s not important, right?
Certain signs of poor writing can be revealed through a single question: does the audience know a character because of what other characters have said about them, or do they know a character through their own observations? In Obvious Child, much of the character info is given through forced dialogue; one example: Donna’s mom (Polly Draper) gushes about what a great student and writer Max (Jake Lacy) is. There was also a nasty and lazy tendency to give characterization through pre-stand-up introductions.
Donna’s divorced parents, who could have provided some depth to the film, are thin cardboard cutouts. Her dad (Richard Kind) is a puppeteer of sorts. Donna’s mom wants her daughter to mature in her life/career and comforts her later in the movie by recalling her own illegal and successful abortion in the 1960s. She is also described in a forced line by Max as “The best professor I’ve ever had.” Nothing else is known about the parents.
The movie desperately hangs onto the laughter of the comedy club audience. The shallow ploy helps for the plethora of empty theater seats the movie deserves; perhaps they could use a studio audience next time?
What the film may make up for in semi-decent acting, it loses in failed comedy. The humor is scatological: poop, pee, farts, anal sex and pantie stains are the sources for all the jokes (until abortion jokes are added). They aren’t even really that situational either (as in finding humor in context or reactions), it’s just supposed to be funny that Max farts and that Donna has stains on her panties.
The cliche dialogue fell short as well. Even David Cross couldn’t come up with something better than “Colder than a witch’s tit” for his character to say while stepping into the New York winter.
And I could go on about the problems…
Offensive humor deserves scorn…
Certain forms of humor should absolutely be met with scorn, shaming and rejection from society. Racism for example; it is never acceptable for a white person to degrade people of color (in the general sense) through humor. Why? Context! Here is a video that might help to explain (I don’t agree with every point, but almost). And no to all of you would-be Chelsea Handlers out there, you don’t get a pass for being racist by having black friends, family or sexual partners.
The issue of race is not alone in the category of sensitive subjects. Domestic abuse, rape, miscarriage and abortion (just to name a few) are issues with real victims and complexities that shouldn’t be the butt of insensitive jokes.
Dark humor that’s not dark or humorous
Is Obvious Child a film brimming with dark humor? No. Dark humor is different. Dark humor is laughing at something that performer and audience all recognize as deeply horrific. For example the nuclear end of the world in Dr. Strangelove. If a comedy was made about a nuclear holocaust by directors and actors who thought it was no big deal (and wrote their jokes accordingly), audiences would be horrified. Context is key with dark humor.
In Obvious Child the abortion humor makes assumptions that pull it a good distance away from dark humor territory. Most notably, the audience is presented with the conclusion that this is an obvious and easy choice for Donna; in fact, the movie uses silent, nervous smiles for a complete circumvention of any notion that the procedure would affect something other than a simple part of her body (like an appendix or a wisdom tooth). Indeed, most of the complexity Donna has with abortion comes from issues of finances (unresolved thread of plot), pain, telling her mom and telling the would-be father (Max).
Yet the specific jokes, when they came, were staggering.
The first joke (that I will mention) started with Donna’s friend who told her she was going to “kill it” up on stage (referring to her comedy act); Donna replied that she was in fact going to “kill it” tomorrow (referring to her scheduled abortion).
Another joke (which was more in line with the lewd humor of the movie) came during Donna’s final comedy act in which she talked about her mother’s abortion; the “joke” centered upon the fact that in the 1960s women had longer pubic hair (or a “bush” as she said) and that it would be hard to hunt down the fetus in such an environment.
Does abortion, as an issue, deserve respect?
I should clarify that I don’t see this movie as representing a standard “pro-choice” view at all. Politically, this movie doesn’t really illuminate the debate about whether or not abortion should be legal (Cider House Rules did a respectful, although somewhat ham-fisted, job of that). Rather Obvious Child questions whether or not abortion is a sensitive subject. Donna is more upset about being dumped by her loser boyfriend than her pending abortion and her mother is more upset by the idea of her moving to LA than terminating a pregnancy.
The film fails at reconciling with reality on the very issue it’s fumbling around with. I have many of friends and family who have dealt with unplanned pregnancies in a variety of ways; the issue surrounds me in life. I don’t know of any who had an obvious and easy choice present itself. For the several who had abortions, humor is the last thing on their minds when talking on the subject.
Abortion disproportionately affects impoverished communities and communities of color. Many women do not want to have abortions, but by their situation they might feel trapped. A movie about an irresponsible late-twenties white woman (with rich parents) who jokes about the procedure all the way to the clinic is not only tasteless and offensive, but hurtful.
Also in the international context of this “comedy” (the world frequently watches what the USA produces, though not often the other way around), there are countries that force abortions on women against their will; if our films make pregnancy termination into the butt of jokes, we’ve squandered much of the moral foundations to denounce these policies.
Rape and domestic abuse are not joked about in mainstream movies. Even if something like domestic abuse affects one individual in an inconsequential way, it doesn’t mean that spousal abuse is now a topic for that individual to craft light humor with. Just because it was easy for one woman to leave her abusive husband, doesn’t mean she should portray the issue as or in a joke (unless she is clearly validating it as authentically horrible). These things really aren’t meant to be ‘lightened up’ in any way, shape or form.
If the goal of Obvious Child is to show abortion as harmless and to promote that concept in society, it does so at the expense of men and women who have very real suffering associated with it.
Two Entities (Worth Noting) Behind Obvious Child
Jezebel is a blog that helped with the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the creation of this movie. It’s pretty clear how the site views the sensitivities about serious women’s issues like rape, domestic abuse and abortion from their manifesto:
Jezebel is a blog for women that will attempt to take all the essentially meaningless but sweet stuff directed our way and give it a little more meaning, while taking more the serious stuff and making it more fun, or more personal, or at the very least the subject of our highly sophisticated brand of sex joke.
Going along with their mission, the blog has been embroiled in a controversy of posting some very personal screenshots of a woman being raped in 2012 (among other things). It’s hardly surprising that such a blog would be associated with this offensive movie.
Planned Parenthood played a consultant role for the movie. They had influence on the script (they portrayed themselves as super professional in the film) and even let some filming occur at one of their clinics in New Rochelle, New York. They also hosted a screening.
As an organization that is supposed to be at the front lines of helping women through an often heart-wrenching choice, it’s concerning to see that they’ve taken to supporting such a strident and crude film. It’s hard to imagine they are doing everything possible to be empathetic to women in this difficult position when they give their blessing to abortion jokes. I can only hope that pro-choicers and pro-lifers could team up to have Planned Parenthood rethink its association with the views of this film.
In the end, I can’t see there being a lot of attention for Obvious Child from either side. It’s just not that funny or engaging (and those saying that the film is, are just in love with the novelty of portraying abortion in such a nonchalant way). It will get some forced laughs, but beyond this, few will care. The questions I raised in this review will likely be revived if and when a movie with a cohesive story and actual humor takes a similar stab at the abortion issue.
This abhorrent and plot-challenged failure of a comedy was hands down the worst film I have ever viewed.
Photos via: Sundial Pictures