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They Finally Made an Abortion Comedy — and It's Good

Abortion, abortion, abortion. See, it’s not hard to say.
Abortion, abortion, abortion. See, it’s not hard to say.
A24 Films

For all the Fox News fear-mongering that Hollywood is out to indoctrinate us with liberal values, when it comes to pregnancy, the movies have for years been curiously conservative. If a woman gets knocked up, she either loses the baby by accident (cue waterworks) or carries it to term (cue high jinks). Abortion, an option chosen by one in three nonfictional women, is verboten. And if it must be discussed, the Apatow crew pronounces it "schma-schmortion," as though the actual word is an incantation that will make laughs disappear.

But Obvious Child star and real-life comedian Jenny Slate isn't afraid of saying anything. As a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Slate made headlines when she blurted out "fuck" during her first episode. Her contract wasn't renewed, a setback that has proven to be our gain. Though it wasn't written for her, the role of foul-mouthed, vulnerable and impregnated Brooklyn comedian Donna Stern fits her so well that her persona seems fully formed.

When Slate's Donna realizes she's been fertilized, she's comfortable saying the A-word. After her doctor euphemistically talks about her options, Slate straightens her shoulders and says, "I'd like an abortion, please," then repeats herself, not because she's unsure of her choice, but because she's amused by the apologetic quaver in her request, like she's asking a server for a side of French dressing. The big question isn't if she'll keep the child, but how — or really, if — she'll tell the father that the fetus exists.

Donna is so normal she's a New York cliché. She's a struggling comic too smart to do anything but chase her comedy dreams, and too cynical to bother trying to actually succeed. Her uptight mom (Polly Draper) harps on her to outline her financial future and bemoans that she's "wasting her 780 verbal telling jokes about her diarrhea." Her father (Richard Kind) is a creative goofball who looks like he'd give good hugs. He dotes on his scatological princess, even when he coos that she's an aberration. So do her two best friends, Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) and Joey (Gabe Liedman, Slate's long-time sketch partner), as though director Gillian Robespierre worries that we'll get sick of Donna if every 10 minutes someone doesn't remind us that she's brave, honest and adorable.

No risk of that. Slate fills the screen like a hot air balloon, all swollen with emotions, and if she's a little thoughtless in how she treats others, she's forgivable; her very state of being is one of lovable self-flagellation. She's mouth first, brain second, with her conscience continually trying to keep pace.

During Donna's opening monologue at her regular comedy haunt, she over-shares about her boyfriend and their "functional" sex life. Five minutes into the movie, he dumps her, in part because of her act, and in part because he's already sleeping with her friend. Cue Donna's stages of grief: anger, stalking, depression, bad stand-up and for her grand climax, a drunken, unprotected night with a stranger named Max (Jake Lacy of The Office).

Max isn't her type. For one, he's so clean-cut he looks like a serial killer, or worse, for Donna's Williamsburg crowd, what he actually is: an MBA student. For another, he's such a gentile he may as well be a Christmas tree, to which Donna jokes, "and I'm the menorah on top that burns it down." Lacy's guileless charm would feel neutered if not for the plot, which hinges on his sperm count. Instead of trying to share the stage, he's happy to lean back and let her dominate the spotlight. In turn, she dismisses him as "Pee-farter," and slips out of his bed as soon as possible.

It's a curious setup for a romantic comedy, but it works because Donna is no romantic. "I just hate that type of film," she groans, and she'd probably roll her eyes at the script contrivances that keep her crossing paths with her one-night stand. Who knows if she and Max can live happily ever after? The real love story is between Donna and the rest of womankind, the silent (in movies) but sizable majority who understands her decision. What will last is the strength of her friend Nellie's support, her closer bond with her mother and even the small smile she shares with another patient at the abortion clinic.

Pro-life audiences won't fall in love with Donna. And her sense of humor will alarm people who can't imagine wearing the masks of comedy and tragedy at the same time.

But Obvious Child is perfect for those who want more honesty in fiction, and survivors like Donna who know that sometimes the only way to get used to pain is by hitting a tender spot over and over and then letting the bruise heal.


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