babes review

Ilana Glazer’s pregnancy comedy Babes should work, but the jokes are stuck in 2014

2 stars out of 5

On paper, everything about Babes works. It’s a fresh and honest take on motherhood, friendship and family for the 2020s. It has all the right story beats, it has the “right” opinions and features a “relatable” if flawed vision of another millennial coming of age. With shades of Broad City humour a little more grown-up, blending chaotic randomness, gross-out comedy and liberal politics, the movie feels very much like a natural extension of what was first laid out in 2014. Depending on how much you’ve grown and changed in the past decade, the experience will either be nostalgic or stagnant. For me, it was the latter. 

Babes is a film about pregnancy. As the movie opens, Dawn (Michelle Buteau) is extremely pregnant. She’s going on a movie date with her best friend, the intense and childish Eden (Ilana Glazer). As the movie starts, Dawn goes into labour, but instead of rushing to the hospital, the pair decide to indulge in a decadent “last meal.” The scene sets the stage for the ways millennials refuse to conform to tradition and how that doesn’t always pan out. A few story beats later, as Dawn gives birth, the normally strong-willed Eden throws up. And of course, it won’t be long before she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant as well.

Not unlike Broad City, Babes touches on the importance of friendship and how it’s fundamentally undervalued in contemporary society. Eden doesn’t have a traditional family and lacks romance. Her friendship with Dawn is the most important relationship in her life. Many of the film’s obstacles, whether literal or psychological, are hinged on the idea that friendship isn’t considered as important as blood or romantic connections. As a soon-to-be single mom, this lack of community and a support system becomes an impending challenge to her well-being. 

The script hits all the right beats and has all the right call-backs but ultimately feels stale and predictable. It’s a movie that feels tailor-made for an audience that hasn’t moved forward over the past decade and offers a vision of the world that seems woefully out of touch. Not unlike Broad City, the film uses rambling stream-of-consciousness as a means of touching on gender, feminism, race and class without really engaging with any of those issues. The characters are “too much” but are, by default, presented uncritically. Even for a comedy, the movie is all surface, no depth. 

Played mostly for laughs and leaning heavily into “gross-out” humour that underpins the real toll of pregnancy, the main issue with Babes is that the humour doesn’t quite land. The jokes seem stuck in 2014, favouring chaotic selfishness and a rambling dialogue that lacks any real or substantial writing. Unlike a show such as Girls, which similarly lambasted millennial delusions but remains fresh due to its caustic perspective on girlhood, Broad City became increasingly conventional and wholesome — undercutting any bite or insight. Here we see a similar trajectory, as Eden and Dawn grapple with growing older and being forced to take on adult responsibilities. The dreams they had of liberation from tradition are met with a cold hard reality that forces them to course-correct and embrace convention (with a “cute” liberal feminist twist). 

That isn’t to say, necessarily, that there isn’t truth in conventional wisdom. But, as framed within Babes, any challenges to the status quo are eventually met with solutions that refuse to challenge any kind of aspect of our current social structure. Not unlike Broad City, Babes feels like a film for temporarily inconvenienced upper-middle class women who face no real adversity or struggle. There are a handful of “important” speeches that are meant to cut through the comedy. They aren’t totally embarrassing only because the cast sells it (especially Michelle Buteau, with honourable mention to John Carroll Lynch). The most compelling argument that the film engages with is how pregnancy and motherhood becomes isolating due to persistent misinformation and a shroud of taboo that obscures the uncomfortable social and biological realities of motherhood. But, other pop cultures have also dealt with this question better and with stronger comedy, such as Ali Wong’s 2018 pregnancy-forward comedy special, Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife

Judging by some of the reactions online, it seems like the comedy works on many people. As someone who yearns for strong joke-writing, though, the movie falls flat. Perhaps it will resonate for people who are parents, or for the upwardly mobile middle class, but as things stand, it’s a movie that is well-written (if you ignore the lack of jokes), well-acted and absolutely outdated. ■

Babes (directed by Pamela Adlon)

Babes is now playing in Montreal theatres.

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