Babes comes to us from the writing/producing team of Ilana Glazer and Josh Rabinowitz, both of whom worked extensively on “Broad City”. Director Pamela Adler also comes from a television background, here making her feature directing debut after thirty years in too many TV and voice-over roles to list here. This one was a bold choice for a first-time director, and I don’t think it was the right one.

Glazer plays Eden, a perpetually single woman operating her own yoga studio/business out of her apartment in Queens, NYC. Her lifelong best friend is Dawn (Michelle Buteau), and the film opens moments before Dawn gives birth to her second child. So now Dawn is tending to a newborn daughter while her firstborn son (Tommy, played by Caleb Mermelstein-Knox) is regressing back to an infant because he’s jealous of the attention baby sister is getting. And Dawn’s husband is played by Hasan Minhaj, so he’s no help whatsoever.

Getting back to Eden, she has a chance encounter with a struggling artist (Claude, played by Stephan James) on the subway. They get to talking, they hit it off, and they go have a one-night fling. And somehow, improbably, Eden gets pregnant. What’s worse, Claude is permanently out of the picture for reasons I won’t discuss here.

And Eden decides to keep the baby. There are so many problems here.

First of all, Eden has no motivation strong enough to plausibly commit to such a huge decision. Everything we’ve seen and learned about this character fail to plausibly sell her ability to commit to anything. She has personally seen — up close and personal — every step of her best friend’s stressful pregnancy and overburdening family life, and she’s okay with going through it all without a husband or a stable family to support her. Sorry, but Glazer and company utterly fail to sell this crucial choice at the center of the premise, which definitely qualifies as a fatal error.

To be clear, I get the central idea that Eden doesn’t know what she’s signing up for. Seeing something and experiencing it are two different things, after all. But that doesn’t change the underlying sense that Eden only made this choice because we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise. Which wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t feel like the whole damn movie was built on that logic.

A prime example is Dr. Morris (John Carroll Lynch), an OB/GYN who serves as a recurring bald joke throughout the picture. Seriously, the most notable thing about this character is the recurring visual gag about his ongoing battle with hair loss. I might also point out the uncomfortable scene in which Dr. Morris has to run genetic tests on the fetus because different genetic abnormalities can be prevalent among different ethnicities. Except he doesn’t phrase it that way — you know, like an ethical and competent medical professional would — he just comes out and says that Jews can carry genetic diseases. Because it’s easier and supposedly funnier to make the race joke about how genetic testing is racist.

This was clearly and explicitly made as a vehicle for a stand-up comedian, because the characters repeatedly make choices based less on internal logic and common sense, and more on whatever we the audience might find funny in the moment. Except it isn’t funny, it’s obnoxious as fuck to spend so much time around characters making their own problems and pissing each other off because they have no brain-to-mouth filter. This is another fine example of “machine gun comedy”, desperately spitting off a hundred jokes in the hope that one will land, and it gets tiring pretty much immediately.

The movie wants us to take these huge physical/mental/emotional topics seriously — most especially the topic of pregnancy and child-rearing, something the vast majority of us will have to deal with in one way or another at some point — but it’s trying to explore this topic by way of characters who feel like punchlines instead of people. Hell, Claude only gets maybe five minutes of screentime, and his… ahem reason for departure is played for comedy.

To be clear, I understand and respect what this movie was going for. The capitalistic pressures, medical needs, and societal expectations around pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for a newborn. The apparent futility of any work/life balance. The compulsion to take a break from family pressures, clashing with the compulsion to be with family. How adults pairing off into married couples and family units leaves them with less time to be reliable “best friends” for single adults. The general stresses of being a single mother.

These are all worthy subjects well-deserving of examination in cinema. Granted, we’ve already seen a number of films on such topics in recent memory — Juno, Tully, Waitress, and Obvious Child all come immediately to mind. Just a few months ago, we got the double-header of Immaculate and The First Omen. Hell, it was only three years ago when Ilana Glazer herself co-wrote, produced, and starred in False Positive, another movie that dealt extensively in pregnancy, albeit with more of a psychological horror/thriller bent.

I can’t speak to how Glazer felt about False Positive and how that movie turned out, but let’s just say that if she was disappointed and wanted to take another shot, I’d understand. For that matter, I’d understand if she wanted to approach the subject from a comedic angle more in keeping with her comfort zone. That’s still no excuse for dialogue and plotting that feel less like an authentic human experience and more like a stand-up special adapted into a narrative.

But then we get to the third act. Where the hell was this the whole movie?

Suddenly, the characters are reacting and conversing like plausible human beings. They’re talking about real shit in compelling and brutally honest terms. It’s all thought-provoking and heartbreaking stuff, all presented in a comical way that didn’t come off as obnoxious or forced. Such a damn shame we had to go through the previous hour to get to it. I guess I got so fed up with waiting for Eden and Dawn to grow up that it was a genuine relief to see it finally happen.

Babes was so clearly and specifically built around Ilana Glazer’s style of comedy that I have a hard time recommending it to anyone outside of her established audience. Yes, that third act is wonderful, but I’ve never accepted “it gets better, though” as a valid justification in and of itself. The movie definitely has a pacing issue, which likely rests with the novice director. Getting through that first hour was torture, but god damn, this movie hits hard when it finally gets in gear.

This one gets a home video recommendation. Even if you’re a fan of Ilana Glazer, you won’t lose anything if you wait to see this on a small screen.


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