I once attended a forum with a successful Hollywood screenwriter who told about how young writers were always approaching him with the same complaint. "I just saw the crappiest movie. How did it get made? I could write crap like that." The successful screenwriter would tell them "don't set your sights on writing marketable crap. Aim a bit higher."
I was reminded of this as I watched Gillian Robespierre's new comedy Obvious Child. I don't mean to suggest the movie is crap. Far from it. It has a number of good elements. But it's not all that good either. And one of the reasons is because Robespierre seems intent on cramming in as many fart jokes as you'd find in an early Judd Apatow comedy. (You know, before he got serious.)
Now I suppose it could be a sign of feminist triumph that Jenny Slate is permitted to sling toilet humor with the best of them. And I'm all for freedom of expression. But I never really thought fart jokes resulted in brilliant comedy when men were telling them, and I can't help feeling there is a missed opportunity in this movie. It has the one key ingredient that all romcoms need. In Slate and Jake Lacy, the movie has a likeable mismatched couple with some chemistry. The central premise of having to tell your one-night stand that you intend to have an abortion is great. If they would only get out of the bathroom long enough to let it develop.
Women have come a long way since 1989 when the TV show Roseanne built an episode around Roseanne's teenage daughter Becky farting in front of the entire school. Becky thought her life was over. It wasn't. Another barrier broken down. With the success of 2011's Bridesmaids, it seemed as though women could be raunchy - if not quite as raunchy as men, still pretty raunchy - and people would come watch. Provided they were funny enough.
That may be a problem for Obvious Child. We see Slate's character Donna perform several stand-up routines, and she just isn't that funny in them. I realize comedy is just as subjective as beauty, and I'm sure there are others who find Donna hilarious. But I'm not really convinced Robespierre wants her to be all that funny - at least not during her stand-ups. Movies about comedians are very hard to pull off. In part, this is because doing effective stand-up is very hard. In part, it is because movies about comedians never seem content to simply be comedies. They always seem to go for something deeper. So you have Tom Hanks, not being funny in Punch Line, or Billy Crystal, not being funny in Mr. Saturday Night, or Adam Sandler, not being funny in Funny People (when Judd turned serious.) There have been good movies about comedians - Bob Fosse's Lenny and Peter Chelsom's Funny Bones come to mind - but the only really funny movie about a comedian I can think of is Annie Hall.
It seems to me that the other major flaw in Obvious Child is that instead of putting Donna and Max (the Lacy character) on screen a lot, it insists on letting Donna constantly bitch about her rotten luck (and bodily functions) to her wide circle of sympathetic friends and family. These scenes have some merit - remember, there is a lot of promising material in this movie. But it gets old eventually. Donna/Max has the potential to be new and interesting. Donna and sympathetic friend is a dead end. And for me anyway, it all crashes into the back wall of that dead end when Donna is in the bathroom, awaiting the results of her pregnancy test, and sympathetic best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) announces that while they wait, she's "going to take a big stinky shit." (In the words of Camille West, "Sorry if you're eating." ) I may have that exact quote wrong, but that's how it sounded to me.
I guess it is somewhat liberating for female characters to be able to talk about themselves and their bodies like this, but liberating doesn't necessarily equate to good. The key factor here may not be the number of toilet jokes - I didn't actually count them - but the placement of them. At three crucial moments - when we first meet Donna doing stand-up, during the meet cute scene between Donna and Max, and this pregnancy test scene, Robespierre really hauls out the heavy (resisting the impulse to say "heavy duty") flatulence humor. This movie runs 84 minutes and with all the time spent in the bathroom, both figuratively and literally, it doesn't leave much time for the Donna-Max story to play out. That results in Max being underdeveloped - being too perfect until suddenly he isn't. Max gets almost nothing to do in this movie beyond being a foil for Donna.
I realize that is often the function of female characters, and if you want to argue that this is not in fact intended to be a romcom, but a movie about Donna instead, you're certainly entitled to that. But again, turning the tables on male-centric movies may feel good for a moment or two, but it doesn't result in a great movie. And if the movie is not about the relationship, then I simply don't find Donna, however scatological she may be, to be fascinating enough on her own to sustain a first-rate movie.
SPOILER ALERT: I will, however, give Robespierre a lot of credit for resisting a rather obvious joke toward the end of the movie when Donna thanks Max for coming ... (with her to her abortion). I was dreading the ensuing laugh line, but it was not to be. I'm not sure a male director could have resisted.