OBVIOUS CHILD is a bit obvious. It tries hard to normalize abortion, and it generally succeeds for its 83 minutes. The movie is fun to watch, not least because its main character, Donna Stern, and the actress playing her, Jenny Slate, are both hilarious. Donna’s standup is a mix of personal material and observational humor with just the right amount of raunchy, sort of like Louis CK, but she sometimes makes her material a bit too personal, which may be why she’s not more successful.
The film wisely avoids cliché romantic comedy territory, though as my wife pointed out, Donna’s one-night stand/baby daddy/sort-of boyfriend Max is a bit of a cardboard cut-out: sweet, sensitive, and successful, what more could a woman want? But the characters generally feel pretty real. When Donna’s mother, for example, makes Donna a spreadsheet of her career prospects in one scene and comforts her after Donna tells the mother about her upcoming abortion in another, it feels like she’s the same person.
The ‘obvious’ part of the film is its political agenda. It works hard to make abortion seem normal and a good choice for many women because no other mainstream American film (that I know of) has done so. Even in other ‘hipster comedies’ like KNOCKED UP, abortion is never considered a viable option. In OBVIOUS CHILD, Donna asks for an abortion right after learning that she’s pregnant, without missing a beat. I enjoyed this moment, but when Donna’s mother tells a heartfelt story about her own illegal abortion, and when Donna exchanges a smile with another young woman after her procedure, I felt tempted to say ‘I get it.’ In any event, it’s a good message, which I agree with—if any non-pro-choice readers also saw the film and have thoughts, I’d love to hear!
WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. JAMES J. BULGER is a documentary (not to be confused with WHITY…oh, that Fassbinder) about the trial of ‘Whitey’ Bulger, criminal kingpin of South Boston from the seventies to the early nineties. Whitey was a scary guy—in fact, he was the basis for Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in THE DEPARTED. The documentary covers his 2013 criminal trial, before which Whitey was on the lam and the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Like OBVIOUS CHILD, WHITEY tries a bit too hard. One of the central issues in Bulger’s trial is whether he was an informant for the FBI. U.S. Attorneys claim that he was, which allowed him to avoid criminal charges for over twenty years. Bulger’s defense attorneys claim that his FBI contacts sold Bulger information for money, not the other way around. When Whitey claims that the head U.S. Attorney (now dead) had approached him for protection from the Italian mafia, it starts to seem like the integrity of the U.S. government is on trial.
This probably sounds confusing—I’m a bit confused myself. As these issues multiply and pile on top of each other in Whitey’s trial, it and the film turn into a bit of a circus. Though the film does a good job of educating the viewer about the different people and organizations in the story, there is no resolution about the nature of Whitey’s relationship with the government, because it was never answered at the trial. It seems like the filmmakers were expecting more answers than they ended up getting.
The film seems to take Whitey’s side, oddly enough; the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office are portrayed as corrupt and dishonest. I don’t know why it turned out this way. Perhaps Whitey’s defense team saw an opportunity to use the film as propaganda, because they spend far more time on camera than the prosecutors do. The most moving and worthwhile part of the movie is when relatives of Whitey’s murder victims and a man who was himself extorted by Whitey get a chance to speak out. Unfortunately, the red herring of government corruption took over Whitey’s trial and left the reality of the people whose lives he damaged by the wayside. The tragedy of the film is that it suffers the same fate.