In what could almost be a Fort Greene, Brooklyn-based variation on Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series, a trio of new bohemians are trying to get pregnant while fending off the distractions of nosy neighbors in Sebastian Silva’s shaggy way-we-live-now comedy “Nasty Baby.” Casting himself as the gay male lead and Kristen Wiig as the movie’s mom-to-be, Silva assembles a loosely scripted, raucously nonconformist laffer that looks like it’s going one way, only to arrive somewhere else entirely — a change of heart that’s not at all to the advantage of a film that has speciously limited alternative-audience appeal to begin with.
Something of an international festival darling, yet still virtually unknown to all but the most die-hard cinephiles in the States, Chilean director Silva last rolled into Sundance in 2013 with two incredibly different yet equally unconventional features: the opening-night mindbender “Crystal Fairy” and the midnight movie “Magic Magic.” It’s something of a red flag then that his latest has landed in the festival’s Next category, indicating that the helmer (whose oeuvre also includes “The Maid”) may have taken a step backward.
For those keeping score, the running strand through all of Silva’s work has been the perverse delight he takes in making both audiences and characters squirm by creating deliberately awkward social situations. Here, best friends Polly (Wiig) and Freddy (Silva, playing a silly version of himself) have decided to have a baby, but they’ve come to the realization that his sperm isn’t quite up to snuff. That leaves two options: Freddy’s adorable yet immature younger brother, Chino (Agustin Silva), or his shy yet eminently reasonable partner Mo (Tunde Adebimpe).
If there’s one thing to love about “Nasty Baby” — which otherwise offers no shortage of reasons to exasperate — it’s the color-blind, just-accept-it attitude toward this wonderfully nonstandard fertility exercise. A decade or two earlier, a white female nurse, a gay black carpenter and his (potentially illegal) Chilean lover would have had a nearly impossible time trying to make a baby between them, but these days, the film’s strange pseudo-family is just about the hippest group of would-be parents you can find around.
Not everyone is that progressive. While the neighborhood is full of same-sex couples and mixed-race kids (it’s sort of a running joke that there are no white babies to be found), there are also those who don’t approve. In “Nasty Baby’s” eyes, it’s the feet-draggers who are the real weirdos. Both Mo and Freddy have issues getting their families to accept their life choices, but the most serious obstacle is a random crazy guy who calls himself “the Bishop” (“House of Cards” BBQ chef Reg E. Cathey) who’s been squatting down the street.
The Bishop wakes everybody at 7 a.m. with his noisy leafblower, then harasses folks at night by “helping” visitors park their cars. He’s an unpredictable, half-unhinged wild card the likes of which one only finds in big cities. No one wants him around, yet there’s no easy solution in terms of how the characters are supposed to deal with him — though let’s just say that if their fates were reversed, this would potentially be the most upsetting movie ever to play Sundance.
Loosely extrapolated from a 20-page outline, “Nasty Baby” manages to be consistently funny in its own off-kilter way, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s haphazardly constructed and grotesquely ugly to behold. On “Magic Magic,” Silva collaborated with master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whereas in this project, everything is shot in drunkenly unsteady handheld by “The Maid” d.p. Sergio Armstrong, then cut together as if the creative team is still searching for the story. What, for instance, is Chino even doing in this movie? Is it normal for Silva’s real-life cat to so easily steal the show? And what’s the deal with Mark Margolis’ character, a gay neighbor who hangs around on the edges?
When not worrying about trying to have a baby, Freddy spends his time imagining himself as an infant, rolling around on the floor babbling incoherently. It’s all part of a lame art project only he thinks is funny. Toward the end, a gallerist takes a look at the video recordings of Freddy’s “nasty baby” role-playing routine, and his forehead creases in disappointment. He so loved Freddy’s past work, but this latest doodle is just so different: It seems tossed-off, unprofessional and not at all as described. Silva’s fans know exactly how this man feels.
Sundance Film Review: 'Nasty Baby'
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 24, 2015. (Also in Berlin Film Festival — Panorama.) Running time: 101 MIN.
(International sales: Funny Balloons, Versatile Films, Paris.) Produced by Juan de Dios Larrain, Pablo Larrain, Charlie Dibe, David Hinojosa, Julia Oh. Executive producers, Peter Danner, Pape Boye, Violane Pichon, Sebastian Silva. Co-producer, Alia Shawkat.
Directed, written by Sebastian Silva. Camera (color, HD), Sergio Armstrong; editor, Sofia Subercaseaux; music, Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans; music supervisor, Juan Ignacio Correa; production designer, Nico Arze; art director/set decorator, Naomi Munro; costume designer, Mark Grattan; sound, Michael Barry; sound designer, Ruy Garcia; sound editor, Luciano Vignola; re-recording mixers, Barry, Josh Berger, Garcia; stunt coordinator, Manny Siverio; casting, Jessica Daniels, Katja Blichfeld.
Sebastian Silva, Kristen Wiig, Tunde Adebimpe, Reg E. Cathey, Mark Margolis, Agustin Silva, Alia Shawkat, Lillias White, Anthony Chisolm, Neal Huff. (English, Spanish dialogue)