‘Babes’ Review: A Gross-Out Comedy That’s Hilarious, Inspiring, And Groundbreaking

Director Pamela Adlon has done the nearly impossible: crafted a film that mines comic gold from people being loving to one another while acting responsibly.

Michelle Buteau and Ilana Glazer in Babes. Gwen Capistran/Neon

With her sensational feature directorial debut Babes, Pamela Adlon has done the nearly impossible. The comedian, voice-over actor, and showrunner and star of the rightfully beloved FX series Better Things—working from a script by star Ilana Glazer and Josh Rabinowitz (a producer on Glazer’s sitcom Broad City)—has crafted a film that is at once sophisticated and aggressively sophomoric, profoundly romantic and deeply cynical, and as feminist as a barbecue at Gloria Steinem’s house and yet seemingly apolitical enough to appeal to your average Entourage fan. 

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BABES ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Pamela Adlon
Written by: Ilana Glazer, Josh Rabinowitz 
Starring: Ilana Glazer, Michelle Buteau, Hasan Minhaj, Stephan James, John Carroll Lynch, Oliver Platt
Running time: 109 mins.

In doing so, Adlon has unshackled that most onerous of summer movie mainstays—the gross-out comedy—from the sexual shame and bodily fear that has come to define the genre and transformed it into something genuinely uplifting. 

The film establishes its point of view (literally) within the first three minutes, when pregnant Dawn (Michelle Buteau), meets her ride-or-die since grade school Eden (Ilana Glazer) at the movies on Thanksgiving, an annual tradition going on 20 years. When Dawn’s water breaks, and Eden gets on all fours in the theater to have a look and describe the rhythmic cadence of the drip (“it’s got a swing to it”), we get a clear picture of the assertory and unyielding intimacy at the heart of not only their friendship but also Adlon’s agenda as a filmmaker. 

The gag keeps building, spawning humor physical, societal, scatological, and even hyper-local as the Astoria-based Eden faces the sticker shock of post-birth celebratory sushi from the Upper West Side. The sushi, along with the video game Mortal Kombat, becomes central to Eden hooking up with Claude, a tuxedoed actor she meets on her epic subway ride home. (The 2 to the 7 to the G to the N, for those keeping score at home.) 

Claude is played with suave vulnerability by Stephan James, star of Barry Jenkins’ 2018 lovestruck James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk, and Adlon seems inspired by his presence to indulge in a similar type of dreamy romanticism. It’s one of many drastic tone shifts that Adlon handles with an assurance far beyond her freshman status. She’s made a potty humor obsessed movie (a toilet literally blows up in this movie, mercifully off screen) that is also soaked in the autumnal glow and piano bar soundtrack of early Woody Allen. Somehow, it all works. 

When Eden’s dalliance leads to an unexpected pregnancy (yes, she learns, it can happen even when you have your period) and she chooses to keep the baby and raise it without Claude, the film becomes a treatise on the true elasticity of a seemingly unbreakable bond. Both Glazer and Buteau, the stand-up comedian and podcast host who has up until now had only small parts in movies, work off each other beautifully, gracefully intensifying and attenuating their endlessly layered relationship.

They lead a uniformly funny and almost entirely male supporting cast. (Sandra Bernhard is largely wasted as Dawn’s fellow dentist and coworker.) Hasan Minhaj plays Dawn’s open-hearted and moderately flustered husband, whose primary task is to potty train their rapidly regressing four year old. Zodiac’s John Carroll Lynch shows a deft comic touch as Dawn and Eden’s follicly-challenged OBGYN, while Oliver Platt is quietly heartbreaking as Eden’s estranged and agoraphobic father.     

Ilana Glazer and Stephan James in Babes. Neon

When so much humor from this genre tends to come from humiliation, cruelty, and idiocy, a film that mines comic gold from people being loving to one another while acting responsibly is inspiring and groundbreaking. From consent to STDs (the Lucas Brothers have a hilarious cameo as twins who run a testing clinic where Eden is a regular), to pressure about lactation, Babes provides a clearer roadmap for how to navigate sexual intimacy and women’s bodies than any nonfiction film I can recall. (Claire Simon’s 2023 documentary Our Bodies, which examines the lives of patients in the obstetrics and gynecology ward of a public hospital in Paris, comes to mind.) 

But what Babes truly excels at is putting the comedic pedal to the metal and not letting up for a minute. I found myself at a low giggle, like a cat’s purr, throughout the whole preceding—that is until the conclusion, when I got a little choked up. 

Fortunately, unlike me, no one in the movie actually cries at the end. It’s pretty much the only bodily fluid Babes has no time for. 

‘Babes’ Review: A Gross-Out Comedy That’s Hilarious, Inspiring, And Groundbreaking