Kirsten Smith co-wrote Legally Blonde, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s the Man and The House Bunny. She’s directed two short films, both starring Anna Faris, and executive produced Whip It. Her latest project is The Expendabelles, the female-centric installment of The Expendables franchise. You can find her on Twitter at @kiwilovesyou.
Where has Jenny Slate been all my life?
Turns out, for the last few years she’s been doing great, steady work as a supporting actress on shows like Parks and Rec, Raising Hope, and House of Lies. Last year she nailed the competitive frenemy character on the excellent “uncomedy”* Hello Ladies. A few years before that, she wrote a best-selling children’s book, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: Things About Me, which began as a beyond-viral video she made with her husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp. In it, she talks in the cutest baby shell voice you’ve ever heard.
But now Jenny Slate is no longer on the fringe. In Obvious Child, she bursts into her first lead role with an explosion of giggly vagina talk, saying things that we’ve all felt but haven’t had the vagina-balls to utter. She’s like the love child of Gilda Radner, Demi Moore and Meryl Streep: she’s got Gilda’s genius comic fuzz; Demi’s sexy rasp and her gift for Beautiful Cinematic Crying; and she recalls Postcards from the Edge Meryl, where Meryl played a wry recovering addict with mommy issues.
Like Postcards, Obvious Child is a comedy of self-destruction. Jenny is Donna Stern, an adorable, vulgar, vulnerable narcissist. “She doesn’t want to live off camera, much less talk,” Warren Beatty says of Madonna in Truth or Dare, and Donna has a similar problem. She’s so distracted by her career in comedy, she forgets to correctly live her life. You get the sense she’s running around being a fuck up mostly so she can channel it into her stand up. Her immaturity makes for a great routine onstage, so why change? In fact, when someone mentions, “Change is a good thing,” Donna responds, “Oh man, that’s the rudest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
The only problem with Donna’s tactical self-exploitation is that when she expresses herself professionally, bad things happen personally. Her boyfriend dumps her after the movie’s opening monologue, saying, “You’re here all the time, your schedule is all over the place.” He’s the type of guy who, it turns out, wants to date a skinny blonde he can raise a puppy with. He doesn’t want the messy, self-effacing, poopy-mouthed wreck that is Donna.
The question the movie asks – at least for me – is, how stunted do you have to stay in order to keep your art alive? Donna is forced to make some grownup moves, but truth be told, she fails pretty much the entire movie. It’s one of the reasons we love her. She’s not a hero – she’s a “woman-child,” the female equivalent to Seth Rogen’s character in Knocked Up. Or Adam Sandler’s character in Big Daddy. Or pretty much any male character in any successful male-driven comedy of the past decade.
It’s only once Donna meets Max (Jake Lacy), a sweet, clean-cut boy who’s “so Christian he’s like a Christmas tree,” that she finally starts to hold a mirror up to her own flawed reflection. Her drunken hookup with Max ends with Donna getting accidentally preggo, and so begins her gentle spiral towards maturity. How does a girl who sometimes talks in her butthole’s voice tackle an unwanted pregnancy? How does she attempt to date the world’s nicest guy when she’s got his baby inside her?
First-time writer/director Gillian Robespierre has got the rhythm of her story and characters down pat. Her visual style is crisp and smart, and her musical choices are winning, for instance the epiphanous title track (by Paul Simon) when Donna and Max have a joyous, drunken dance party. It’s the first post-Girls movie that feels more like a Susan Seidelman ’80s comedy.
The plot doesn’t reinvent the wheel – it’s a familiar rom-com blend of girl gets dumped, girl gets fired, girl subsequently has a secret she can’t tell anyone. And midway through the movie, Robespierre hits us with a deeply unbelievable narrative coincidence (you’ll know it when you see it) that almost drives a stake in the heart of the whole thing. But thanks to Slate and the other pitch-perfect performances (from Lacy, Gabby Hoffman as Donna’s sage roommate, and the hilarious Gabe Liedman as her BFF), we stay with the film.
The past few years have brought us successful female-driven comedy like Bridesmaids and Girls, but with Obvious Child, it’s an epic relief to have a female-driven comedy out that doesn’t have Judd Apatow’s name on it. I want more of them.
Onstage in her final performance, Donna offers the hopeful, uncertain statement, “Afterwards I’ll be in my future.” I can’t wait to see what Slate, Robespierre, and producer Elisabeth Holm have in their future. Thanks to them, the world finally has a leading lady who can cry and fart with equal charm.
* – “uncomfortable comedy”