Confidence and Comedy in Unplanned Pregnancy

Obvious Child reminds us that the best humor is honest.
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Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate (Larry Busaca/Getty)

The doctor at Planned Parenthood enters the room and says abruptly, "Hello, Don." Her patient, Donna Stern, hesitates to correct her. But she can't keep it in, and she laughs and says, "It's actually Don-na." 

The scene in Obvious Child, which is out today in New York and Los Angeles, shows the recently pregnant, Brooklyn twenty-something Stern to be, in actress Jenny Slate's interpretation, "almost a little old-fashioned in the 'Don't be rude to the doctor' way that you learn from your parents."

"My take,” Slate says, “is she probably didn't want to laugh.” 

Because that's exactly the kind of mistake that even the smartest doctor is apt make without a second thought or sincere apology, and it's exactly the reaction that an emotionally intelligent comedian couldn't help but find so implausible that its funny, no matter how weighty the moment. That sort of honest observation is how this comedy that’s (in part) about abortion is making everyone laugh. I haven’t seen a negative review.

More than that, Obvious Child may eventually rank among the most important comedies ever, not because it involves an abortion, but because it departs from the traditionally tragic abortion narrative with a powerful sincerity. The abortion rate in the U.S. is currently the lowest it has been since 1973, but at least half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45, and one third of them will choose to have an abortion. As writer Amanda Hess notes, while some do report shame or guilt, most feel relief. So it’s important that at the beginning of this story there's a woman on stage who writer/director Gillian Robespierre describes as loud and unafraid, and in the end there's the same one, and in the middle there's one who's loud and afraid, and all of them are funny. 

Stern is a comedian, and on stage we see her unfiltered, unapologetic, genuine self, working out her problems live. When, all within the first act of the film, Stern's boyfriend dumps her, and she loses her job, and she finds out she's pregnant after a drunken one-night stand, she takes up what Slate sees as a destructively passive posture. Everyone in her life is against her, it seems, even though they aren't. She gets up on stage drunk, muttering non sequiturs like, "People tell me I look like Anne Frank," to silent reception.

"The problem with that, from a comedian's standpoint," Slate said, parsing the difference between a good Anne Frank bit and a failed Anne Frank bit, "is that there are just a ton of loose ends that connect to nothing, and that's when comedy can go badly—when it's not woven correctly."

Getting to talk with Robespierre and Slate this week was, as a long-time fan of the latter and new admirer of the former, paralyzing. I tried to think of ways to ask new questions they hadn't been asked a hundred times in their intense media tour around the movie’s stepwise release (Sundance, South-by-Southwest, NYC/LA this week, major markets next week, and then hopefully more places if it does well, which it will). But the best I could come up with were questions like, "Why does every character remark on how cold it is when they go outside?" and they looked at one another and were like, "Well, it's New York in February." But then Slate was of course armed with the diverting fact that Valentine's Day is the coldest day of the year, so it wasn't even awkward.

The movie includes causal Holocaust references and a joke about Jeffrey Dahmer being attractive, but it treats the abortion story with reverence. "When Donna talks about the procedure, she never makes fun of it,” Slate said. “She makes fun of her mom's big bush, and she makes fun of herself for not having her shit together, but in general it's all done with thought and care, and a sense that these subjects should be talked about in a way that's responsible."

It's a uniquely honest depiction of abortion as something that gives many women pause but not necessarily crisis. At least, in a place like Brooklyn, if not Austin. Unlike Juno, to which the film is being necessarily compared, the abortion clinic is shown as hospitable and professional—Don-Donna mix-up aside. Robespierre actually worked closely with Planned Parenthood in creating an accurate representation of a patient's experience. There are concerns about a lack of insurance and the cost of the procedure ($500), and the scenes are shot in an actual clinic. Robespierre told The New York Times she did so much research, "If you’d have seen my work computer, you’d have thought I was having an abortion a day."

Slate's characters on Comedy Central's Kroll Show are wonderful (see yogurt water), as is her standup, and Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. But this is one of her first ventures into grounded acting, apart from a supporting role in HBO's Bored to Death. I asked if she's going to continue doing acting that is "less absurd" (seriously, that was my choice of words), and she smiled very nicely and said that's always been the goal. Since she was four, she wanted to be a versatile entertainer like Ruth Gordon, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, or Rosalind Russell—not to be forced into the typical dichotomy of being either a comedian or an actress. 

"I'd just like to do as much as people will let me," Slate said. "I'd really like to be in an action movie." 

"Transformers?"

"No, not like that shit. Something where I am, like, the girl fugitive—a movie like The Fugitive, where I am the main character. I don't have to have giant biceps and a six pack, I am just a lady who is ..."

"Wrongfully accused?"

"Framed! That would be cool. On the run, I have to jump of off stuff and run from explosions and punch people in the face. The women in the Bourne movies, they don't get to do enough. This would be about me, getting my life back together, clearing my name. But not like the movie Enough, starring Jennifer Lopez, which is great."

"I haven't seen it."

"You should. If you want to. It's not going to make or break it for you."

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The AtlanticHe is the host of If Our Bodies Could Talk.

 
 
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