Obvious Child is both a skeptical probing of romantic comedy clichés and a patience-trying look at what it's like to spend a lot of time with a mediocre comedian. Its aim is true and its heart is pure-ish, though. Like the Comedy Central TV shows Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City, Gillian Robespierre's debut generates a lot of juice by daring to show smart, interesting women acting lewdly, fearlessly, and irresponsibly. Unless their behavior has to do with unprotected sex, that is. But even then, Robespierre goes in tough, unexpected directions.
Jenny Slate plays Donna, a stand-up performer whose day job is at an "unoppressive, non-materialist" bargain bookstore that's about to close. Donna's regular, possibly unpaid sets at a small Brooklyn nightclub are made up of giggly, unflattering tales from her daily life: topics include her soiled underwear, her boyfriend, and her "functional" sex life. The aggressive discomfort generated during some of her bits rubs off on Donna's interpersonal relationships offstage, though. Which is part of the reason why, five minutes into the movie, her long-time boyfriend breaks up with her.
Slate, a talented cinematic tweener, pushes this overlong expanded short film forward even when she's leaving ill-advised voicemails in between swigs of Yellow Tail or crinkled up and crying on her fold-out couch. Donna may be tough to sympathize with, but the scenes with her roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) have an ease and intimacy that suggest those precious few minutes in a lot of John Cusack movies when he and his sister Joan would play off each other with unguarded tenderness and affection.
Because Donna's stand-up is an attempt to reshape her day-to-day existence, her sets start to feel like impromptu therapy sessions. Her art/life experiment also means that conversations with friends and family start to feel like long auditions. Donna's constantly trying out new material, and everyone seems to shrug or sigh it off except Max (Jake Lacy), a handsome and trusting Poindexter she meets at a bar one sloshed evening.
Max and Donna's first encounter leads to a joyous scene wherein the Paul Simon song that inspires the film's title is used as the soundtrack for a spontaneous, flirty little musical number. In one of the film's only stylistic flourishes, Donna and Max's first kisses are timed to start and stop during the numerous drum breaks of "The Obvious Child." Just when it seems like they're going to take things to the next level, there's a few seconds of silence. Then the music kicks in again and Donna backs away from her man, dancing and swaying and grinning.
Obvious Child is a useful inversion of several recent schlubby male fantasies where an odd-looking, wisecracking loser winds up with a terrific, beautiful girlfriend-mom type who refuses to extinguish his Roman candle rebelliousness. This time, though, the genders are flipped: Donna is the hyper-verbal, self-deprecating fireball who scorches bland, handsome Max. In a way, the movie is a victory for moviegoers longing for a female version of Seth Rogen or Danny McBride. But those guys were never my type.