Christina Hendricks, Alysia Reiner and Anna Camp star in a manners comedy about pregnancy among rich hipsters, look uncomfortable.
In the Arcade Fire song “City With No Children,” the band of once-charming Canadians contemplated the horrors of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In their mind, rich hipsters too concerned with fedoras and Vampire Weekend weren’t going to pop out the children necessary to start further rock bands with their parent’s money. This is hell, no future in the most punk rock way. Egg, the latest indie from Marianna Palka (Good Dick, Bitch), reassures us that the rich, of Brooklyn and outside of it, are plenty interested in the spread of their rotten seed. Egg is Palka’s fifth movie, and in it, a collection of recognizable faces appear to contemplate how they would like to best fill the world with their spawn.
Tina (Alysia Reiner, Orange is the New Black) is a childless visual artist who has dedicated most of her New York City apartment to paintings and installations of babies, violated wombs and other egg-like things, while Karen (Christina Hendricks), a visiting friend, is merely very pregnant. They were chums in their days at an unidentified art school but have now married and moved into different directions. Tina is a very successful artist—all the kid stuff is for a show at the Whitney—and Karen has to content herself with all the copious money that her husband, Don (David Alan Basche), makes from wheeling and dealing property. Tina prefers a domestic dynamic the other way around and married an unemployed artist named Wayne (Gbenga Akinnagbe, The Wire).
The flipped gender politics of these arrangements fascinate Palka, whose last movie, Bitch, starred her as a housewife who suddenly takes on the mannerisms of a dog after discovering her husband is cheating on her. In Egg, the philandering husband remains—neither Don nor Wayne seem particularly faithful—but what concerns her most is the politics of the body and negotiating how much of it is owned by women. The script, by first-time screenwriter Risa Mickenberg, who previously published a book of aphorisms supposedly gathered from taxi drivers called Taxi Driver Wisdom, catalogs these violations with all the charm of a Rebecca Solnit essay. Both of the movie’s men have endless and useless opinions on how pregnant women should comport their bodies, speaking on behalf of some kind of public interest (it isn’t). This urgency doubles when Tina and Wayne reveal that they are having their child too, though Tina prefers pregnancy via a surrogate (named Kiki and played by Anna Camp of Pitch Perfect-fame). This occurred after Tina aborted an earlier child, a situation which aggravated Wayne, and the surrogate child is offered as a kind of rhetorical compromise: you can indulge your fantasies of fatherhood, but without the damage, upon my body, those fantasies have historically and routinely ignored.
But fantasies of motherhood exist as well. And what’s the difference between fantasy and the real thing? I was reminded of a line from Sheila Heti’s new novel Motherhood, where Heti’s unnamed protagonist asks herself if she “suppressed my desire for children so much that my desire is unrecognizable to me.” Palka seems to intuit this question and the abundant imagery of motherhood with which she populates Tina’s apartment—canvases of children’s eyes, dolls that are small-human-sized—appear to us as a consciousness unspooled. Her characters don’t appear to be able to split parenthood with a career—even the pregnant Kiki is jobless— and Palka’s message may be that this is the fate of career artistry, to watch children (longingly or contemptuously?) but to never crack open the proverbial Egg.
Zadie Smith would probably disagree, but even Tina’s solution should feel less incredulous. After all, Kim Kardashian opted for the same deal last year, telling Ellen this week that the whole thing was “such a breeze.” In Palka’s drama, Kiki’s body hangs dramaturgically, Reiner luxuriating in the exoticness inside the name of who we understand is supposed to be an invading woman. (“Did you bone the surrogate?” Don insipidly asks. Reiner and Basche, married in real life, banter deliciously.) For some time, I held out some hope that Kiki, this body being so cavalierly possessed and debated by these rich people, would turn out to be a virulent street Marxist, holding hostage the means of procreation under a dark beret. To no avail. When Camp enters the movie, it is to make less blonde women feel anxious. Sigh.
It dawns upon us that these loaded characters, or stereotypes, have all brought together to have an overtly political conversation, couched in some amount of sexual intrigue. The effect is not ultimately not unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, a televised play where Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones conversationally duel as characters named “Black” and “White” respectively (with unstated racial tension in the place of unstated sexual tension). In addition to saying stupid things, Don is given to making observations such as “This is why people hate liberals.” Full of money but no style, with a haircut that might as well be mowed on. Hendricks’s performance as his wife wades more confidently into her old territory as a frustrated matriarch of the old social order (this was her in Mad Men, the only woman with anything to lose).
Tina and Wayne combat this with their liberal sensibility that the world can maybe be a better place but the script’s satiric tone makes its hard to tell how seriously Palka feels about any of this. Egg, consequently, becomes more interesting when it becomes a movie about these two kinds of rich people, playing out what class warfare looks like among two halves of the 1%. The debate unfolds like a metaphor for the ruthless longing of the art-rich for the extreme wealth of the rich-rich, e.g., the entire career of Jeff Koons. But the absence of anyone from what some call the “real world” prevents Egg from accomplishing the kind of edgy fun that was found in Miguel Arteta’s similar-minded class comedy, Beatriz at Dinner.
And the decision to elevate gender politics above class politics suggests a distrust of intersectionality, which is arresting in itself. 300,000 people rushed to buy copies of Hillary Clinton’s What Happened late last year and we suppose this tragedy is for them. And sure, we have every right to be distrusting of our proverbial socialist boyfriend. But much like a weekend at a music festival, a collection of so much privilege in one room can really make it hard to breathe and, to wit, we hear Tina deliver an extended riff on how what she was born into was “not a trust fund” and “barely enough to get by” and “look at where we live.” She lives in a two-floor loft in New York that would set you back a least a mil, trust me.
Which may be Palka’s point. Despite their affluence, these people are leading miserable lives. Despite their political certainties, they have little connection at all to how politics influences people’s lives. In this way, they are like pundits, arbitrarily brought in the same room like CNN used to do back in our childhood. Of course, the problem is that Tina and Wayne do stand for something, all the references to “social constructs” are not just wind blown out of bags but meaningful literature, consumed presumably in this art school we hear so much about. Is there some corresponding defense of conservatism that goes beyond nostalgic claims toward a natural order? The folks at Chapo would say no; Ross Douthat has built an entire career on the suggestion that somewhere it exists and he will express it one day. Egg hasn’t found it either, so the question becomes the same one argued every day on the internet: why invite these unpleasant people into our homes in the first place?
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