Very late into Obvious Child, a Sundance crowd-pleaser that actually pleases, struggling stand-up comedian Donna (Jenny Slate) issues an offhand dismissal of romantic comedies. The moment is a transparent wink, a way for writer-director Gillian Robespierre to acknowledge the genre her debut feature is loosely, eccentrically occupying. Such self-reflexivity seems unnecessary; if nothing else, Obvious Child proves that rom-com conventions require no apologies, at least when they’re invested with honesty and sharp humor. Also, a few fart jokes never hurt.
The film’s ace in the hole is Slate, the one-season SNL alum who’s made a small-screen career out of stealing scenes in tiny roles. Slate has basically mastered the art of playing bubble-headed princesses—Jean-Ralphio’s deplorably spoiled sister on Parks And Recreation, the vapid Liz B. of Kroll Show—but she here displays a more vulnerable, relatable side. Her character, Donna, builds her sometimes raunchy material around her love life, delivering off-the-cuff monologues about her insecurities and relationship issues. But a recent breakup has knocked her off her game, and the impending loss of her day job—the very rom-com occupation of Brooklyn bookseller—sends her plummeting toward rock bottom. Slate mines Donna’s despair for big laughs. A stakeout of her ex’s apartment ends in a hilariously pathetic lunge for cover. Funnier still is her big on-stage meltdown, the most depressing stand-up set since Adam Sandler’s first public appearance in Funny People.
Expanded from a 2009 short of the same title, Obvious Child surrounds its comically downtrodden heroine with a very movie-ish support group, including divorced parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper), the friend who’s basically a sister (Gaby Hoffmann), and the obligatory gay best friend (Gabe Liedman, Slate’s actual longtime creative collaborator). Eventually, Donna meets Max (Jake Lacy, from The Office), an impossibly sweet, wholesome suitor who keeps gently pursuing her after their first drunken hookup. The lone obstacle to their “happily ever after”? Donna is pregnant with her new beau’s baby, and has no intention of keeping it. Obvious Child handles the topic of abortion with a refreshing matter-of-factness. While Donna worries about telling Max what she’s decided to do, she has no major doubts about the decision. That makes the film casually but fundamentally progressive—so modern in its attitudes about reproductive rights that it feels little need to justify or even address them.
Like its protagonist’s stand-up routines, Obvious Child is a bit formless, even as it builds toward an overly tidy conclusion. And in turning a 23-minute story into an 83-minute one, Robespierre sometimes struggles to occupy her running time. (A subplot featuring David Cross as a clingy, lecherous peer feels like complete filler.) But Slate is the real deal, her loopy charm powerful enough to compensate for any narrative lacking. There’s a lesson here for filmmakers, especially those interested in breathing new life into a genre as maligned and shopworn as the romantic comedy: Put someone deeply gifted and charismatic in the lead, and the rest tends to fall into place.