Have we reached the point where we can laugh about abortion? It's a question posed, intentionally or not, by "Obvious Child," a film that takes a subject usually explored by somber tones into Woody Allen territory.
This indie rom-com isn't about abortion as much as it's overtaken by it. That's because Donna (Jenny Slate), a 20-something standup comic struggling to make it in Brooklyn, uses her own life as her material. And when Donna gets pregnant, she can't help but crack wise about it.
Using her relationships as fodder for her routine is her shtick. But it gets her dumped in the movie's first scene by a boyfriend who's had enough of it. Donna seeks comfort in the arms of numerous beer bottles, and then in the arms of a preppy audience member, Max (Jake Lacy), who's also had one too many. They go home together, and later Donna hazily recalls drunken, fumbling attempts to employ a condom, attempts which evidently malfunctioned.
The point of view is one of the things that makes "Obvious Child" atypical for its genre. While many romantic comedies center on a female, this protagonist doesn't look for a male to provide a conventional solution to her life. Donna shuns Max's attempts to broaden their relationship past the one-night stand, and when she finds out she's pregnant, decides against consulting him. She'll have an abortion, and whether Max finds out, well, that's something audiences discover during the course of the film.
This is unusual and interesting territory for a genre best known for meet cutes and serendipitous conclusions. The film is based on a 2009 short film of the same name from writer and director Gillian Robespierre, who also helms the feature-length version. She's imbued it with a mix of the high and the low — an uncommon scenario peppered with much scatological humor. Although the main characters' conflict might be handled in a way that pushes boundaries, the many jokes involving bowel movements are more familiar movie-comedy fare (and perhaps not as shocking or amusing as Robespierre and Slate might think).
It's in this juxtaposition where some audience members might find "Obvious Child" a little problematic. Slate is the former "Saturday Night Live" cast member whose stint on the show was short, perhaps because of her infamous F-bomb on television. Like many female comedians, her character seems to take some of her cues from her male counterparts. They talk about their bodily functions in their routines, and so does Donna.
The question becomes whether it's any funnier to hear about misadventures with tampons than chronic flatulence. That's up to the individual, of course. Just know going in that "Obvious Child" delivers a lot of obvious jokes involving female parts. You can see Robespierre and Slate's likely reasoning: The reclaiming of women's bodies is central to their film. At the same time, it's arguable this realm, if not in the exact way, has been covered recently, and better, by Lena Dunham and her hit HBO series, "Girls."
"Girls" also follows the travails of a smart aleck, 20-something comedy writer trying to make it in New York, and also plays fast and loose with rom-com norms and conventions. It's impossible not to compare the two.
But "Girls" is not only more sophisticated (and admittedly backed by a behemoth cable network), but also allowed more time and space to elaborate and develop in the altogether different medium of television. For all the daring of "Obvious Child," it seems a little watered down and rushed. Yet even at less than an hour and a half, Robespierre uses a lot of padding to turn her short into a feature, including thinly developed side plots featuring Donna's divorced parents, opposites who suggest a tug of war over Donna's direction in life.
There's a tug of war in the movie, too. Does it want to demonstrate the completely independent contemporary young woman? That's difficult to say given mom's financial support and a highly ambiguous finale, as well as other scenes that question whether Donna's decision about her pregnancy emerges from mature consideration or spoiled whim. The answer isn't obvious, but maybe Donna is the obvious child. (R) 85 min. S