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Robespierre’s Revolutionary Comedy Tackles Serious Issues
Before the release of the new film, Obvious Child, the total output of films featuring any modicum of humor about abortion arguably begins and ends with Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up in 2007. Jonah (played by Jonah Hill), one of Ben’s (played by Seth Rogen) housemates, upon learning that his friend has gotten a one-night stand pregnant, tries to advise him that an abortion is the best course of action, but Ben doesn’t want to talk about it. “Fine,” Jonah says snarkily. “I won’t say it, but it rhymes with shmashmortion. You should get a shmashmortion at the shmashmortion clinic.”
Knocked Up was one of two films to tackle the topic of unwanted pregnancy in 2007. The other, Juno, dealt with a teenager’s struggle with the issue. In fact, those two films were directly responsible for Gillian Robespierre’s decision to make the 2009 short film that became the launching pad for the full-length version of Obvious Child, which opens at the Ritz Five in Society Hill on June 20.
Those films, Robespierre recalls feeling, were the latest, most glaring examples of how Hollywood was making movies that not only didn’t speak to her generation, but also actually spoke against it. Both movies featured protagonists who initially decided to have the procedure, acknowledging their lack of readiness to be a parent, but then wound up satisfiedly carrying their pregnancies to term. Robespierre felt the best way to address this gratuitous flip-flopping was by providing a narrative counterpoint that showed a more realistic way of dealing with the situation.
“We have been brainwashed as to what the happy ending should be, especially with the unplanned pregnancy,” the 35-year-old lifelong New Yorker emphasizes. “I feel our culture has been a real silencer of choice.”
Acting on that frustration, the School of Visual Arts graduate and two friends came up with the idea for a film that follows a 20-something woman making the decision to have an abortion following a one-night stand. What made the short so different — and what led Robespierre to spend the next four years gathering the resources to make the full-length version of the film — was the fact that Donna, the lead character played by Jenny Slate, actually went through with the abortion. A young woman made a choice, and she lived with it and through it.
Yes, the movie deals with abortion, and yes, it does so with a surprising amount of humor. Take, for example, Donna’s monologue before a restaurant bathroom mirror as she tests the different ways to tell her fling, Max, about what happened and what will happen.
But it would be a mistake to simply think of Obvious Child as an “abortion comedy,” as it has been referred to in numerous articles. Robespierre’s first feature film, made during nights, weekends and a three-month sabbatical from her day job with the Directors Guild of America is an affectingly low-key, unvarnished study of Donna’s attempts to navigate the increasingly choppy waters of adulthood. This includes a brutally humiliating breakup with her boyfriend in the crowded unisex bathroom of the comedy club where she performs and the imminent loss of her job at Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books. Not to mention her parents’ actions, which have helped keep her in stasis, like her mom building an Excel spreadsheet quantifying what Donna needs to do to get her life moving in the right direction and her father still talking to her through the puppets he makes for a hit TV series.
The way that Donna begins to take responsibility for her actions and inactions, especially in deciding to include Max in more of her life, provides the film with its most engrossing moments.
“We really wanted to create a tone in a romantic comedy that was funny and realistic and sounded like us — vulnerable but strong — that was the biggest challenge we had and our main goal,” Robespierre says. “The conflict isn’t about abortion but will she or won’t she be able to regain her confidence.”
Robespierre elicits understated, naturalistic performances out of everyone in the cast — Polly Draper and Richard Kind as Donna’s parents and Gaby Hoffmann as her roommate are especially good, and Jenny Slate’s brutally honest embodiment of a young woman at a crossroads, unsure of which direction to take, is a revelatory star turn.
Robespierre wastes no time setting Donna’s tone, opening with her monologue about bodily secretions, losing the Semitic looks lottery and her underwhelming sex life with the boyfriend who is just minutes away from dumping her.
“We wanted to introduce her quickly,” Robespierre explains. “It wasn’t meant to be shocking — we just wanted to cover all of our bases. This is a person who is going to be very straightforward, very honest, who doesn’t have a filter yet, but is trying to tame her voice.”
Many of the voices in the film are Jewish — not just the characters but the people behind them, including Robespierre, Slate and Gabe Liedman, who plays Joey, Donna’s gay best friend and the MC at the Brooklyn comedy club where she performs, gets dumped and meets Max.
For the Center City born-and-bred Liedman, the role wasn’t much of a stretch. The proudly out former member of Society Hill Synagogue and Penn Charter alumnus has been friends with Slate since they met during their freshman year at Columbia University, when they were both trying out for the school’s improv troupe. They have performed together in numerous shows over the years, and Liedman describes their early routines as being like Mike Nichols and Elaine May. So when he was approached about the role, “I read the script and said, ‘Yeah, there is a gay best friend I would love to play,’ ” Liedman, 32, recalls. “He’s not anyone’s assistant, he’s not a corny roommate, he’s not blindly faithful to her — it was so real!”
The role is Liedman’s first acting job that isn’t solely sketch or standup. Since graduating, he had been performing standup and sketch comedy almost nonstop until he began getting hired as a comedy writer, first on the Comedy Central shows, The Kroll Show and Inside Amy Schumer. He has just begun his second season as a writer on the FOX TV series Brooklyn 99.
His background in both standup and writing meant that he approached the production very differently than the other actors. As a writer, he says, “I had a unique perspective — I knew what the scenes needed.” As an example, he talks about one scene that wasn’t working, requiring multiple takes. “I said, ‘Could we cut one of my jokes out of it?’ ” The scene flowed better, but Liedman laughs talking about how unusual his suggestion was. “I can’t imagine any of the actors on any of the shows I have ever seen saying, ‘Could we cut one of my jokes?’ to make the scene better!”
When asked how he approached his role so that it didn’t play to stereotypes and become a caricature, Liedman’s response gets to the crux of how a movie that brings humor to a perennially hot-button topic like abortion could not only be made but could score a wide-release distribution deal at Sundance.
“When we were making the movie, there was no distribution deal — it was the opposite of a guarantee that anyone would see it. So there was no one putting pressure on Gillian, saying, ‘Could you put the gay guy in a bowtie and have him be snarky?’ We weren’t getting dumbed down.”
A topical film that didn’t get dumbed down receiving acclaim from audiences and critics alike — that just seems so … obvious.
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