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Juno

Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons

(Fox Searchlight; US DVD: 15 Apr 2008)

Review [5.Dec.2007]

Immaculate Misconception

Ah, capricious youth. Strolling defiantly with her jug of Sunny D, little Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is brimming with sass. She mixes Snoop Dogg slang (like “fo shizz”) with Minnesota twang (“pork swords” is so Midwest) and exudes a quirky charm. Juno’s like a cactus; prickly and unique, and it soon becomes clear that the girl’s too smart for her own good. As she floats through high school, her mouth half agape, Juno seems to be judging everything around her. Nothing impresses the charismatic teen so much as herself, and witty barbs abound.


Faced with the unbearable ennui of adolescence, the 16-year-old seduces her lanky lab partner Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) and nature takes its course. If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. Unexpected pregnancy was all the rage in 2007 (see Knocked Up), but this “high school comedy”, penned by 29-year-old Diablo Cody, is a breed apart. In lieu of fraternal stoners, we get a surprisingly irreverent, female perspective, set to the year’s most eccentric soundtrack.


Page scared guys into celibacy with the cautionary pic Hard Candy, a simple and effective tale about the consequences of chasing underage girls. There, she showed the spunk (and cool manipulation) that would serve her so well in Juno. Unfortunately, the 21-year-old iconoclast has settled a little too comfortably into her new image as deadpan diva. Reclined with a smoking pipe, Juno sits atop a tiger rug, in a creatively staged outdoor diorama right out of Rushmore. This is how she breaks the news to Bleeker of his impending fatherhood.


It’s a bold little arrangement (what happened to passing notes in chemistry?) and there are lots of similar look-at-me moments in Juno; colorful, but contrived. And there’s the rub. She’s not one of the Spears girls! How could such a clever chick miss the facts about unprotected sex? And why is she unperturbed? The whole thing feels a bit existential, like some adolescent experiment.


The socially anemic Bleeker gives us far less to work with, though fans of Superbad will remember his awkward sweetness. Cera again plays the meek geek, trying hard to convince us that “Wizard” is this season’s hot superlative. The typecasting isn’t quite as irksome as the fact that thousands of kids could’ve played Bleeker, with more endearing attributes (if not whiter legs). He’s got all the personality of a scone.


Juno’s flaw is quite simply that its dialogue tries a little too hard. Ever ironic, Juno calls Planned Parenthood from her hamburger phone, and half-jokes that she’d like to “procure a hasty abortion”. It’s smirky good fun, but the simple truth is that kids don’t talk like this. Page admits as much in the DVD’s special features. We’ve all had our precious little catchphrases and secret languages, but on the whole, teens are nervous, fumbling creatures. They don’t come equipped with Chaucer-like witticisms, or razor-sharp retorts.


While intriguing, it ultimately undermines the story’s veracity. Everyone here has something exceedingly clever to say, (teen allusions to Soupy Sales?) and it grows tiresome. Even the smarmy Rainn Wilson (of The Office) cameos as a sarcastic corner store clerk. “This is one doodle that can’t be undid, home skillet,” spits the toothy sage. It’s as if Woody Allen hijacked a script from Dawson’s Creek. If everybody talked like this, the crime rate would skyrocket.


Nonetheless, Diablo Cody’s hip script earned high praise, and a gold statue in February. The stripper-cum-screenwriter (ahem) has an undeniable penchant for pithiness, but her win for Best Original Screenplay was truly collaborative. It takes a sharp ensemble to turn words into Oscars, and without Ellen Page, et al., the now popular Cody wouldn’t be a household name.


Like Little Miss Sunshine – last year’s little engine that could – Juno suddenly found itself rubbing shoulders with blue-blooded nominees (Atonement and Michael Clayton among them). In this landscape of betrayal and despair, the sunny indie pic became a bright flower growing between slabs of dramatic cinema. Was Juno selected for top honors simply by virtue of its smart and cheerful disposition? As evidenced by those four major Oscar nods, yes. Hollywood still leaps to canonize quirkiness, and Juno fits the bill. But, with overnight success comes a natural backlash against the buzz (if not the hype machine), so anyone with critical pretensions should handicap the movie before pressing “play”. Hint: It’s not quite Best Picture material.

Jason Reitman, who helmed the sharp satire Thank You for Smoking, continues a comic run worthy of his pedigree. As son to prolific producer Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters), the kid director already has considerable cachet. It’s encouraging then, that at 31, Reitman has earnest, intellectual ambitions – choosing projects that have already earned him a shot at Best Director.


What’s puzzling, however, is how a man of such celebrated taste could green light so irritating a soundtrack. The songs here (mostly atonal Americana) are remedial and distracting, and really only work when slipping instrumentally into the background. Sure, some of it (like Kimya Dawson) matches Bleeker’s flat affect, but these Playskool sing-a-longs, barded by disaffected 20-somethings, are hardly worth celebrating. Still, we get fistfuls of them, so buyers beware.


Idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, audiences were quick to embrace the Juno phenomenon, as if zoo gates flung open and nerds across America broke free from years of persecution. The tube sock revolution will be televised, after all. In an unprecedented marketing move, theaters (even in Vermont) dressed their marquees with Juno’s signature stripes. The film transcended demographics with its fresh language and unusual characters. And, bucking traditional branding, there’s nary a mention of A-list hottie Jennifer Garner (The Kingdom), who would have otherwise earned top billing.


Garner is spot on as the tightly wound Vanessa who, along with husband Mark (Jason Bateman), hopes to adopt Juno’s unbaked bun. The affluent suburbanite hides her desperation behind a façade of yuppie control, and it genuinely hurts to watch Vanessa hedge her bets, fearing that Juno might recant her offer at any time. Reitman keeps the neurotic wife on a short leash – surrounded by Pilates machines and vitamin water – while hubbie gets all the fun.


In Mark, Juno finds a kindred spirit. The unlikely couple share punk obsessions (Iggy Pop, the Melvins), and debate the kings of B-horror (Argento vs. Herschell Gordon Lewis), before CD mixes and awkward flirtations ensue. Despite a generational gulf, there’s considerable chemistry here (let’s face it, Ellen Page likes trapping older guys). Conversely, for best friends, band mates, and lovers, it takes nearly an hour of the film before Juno and Bleeker have any kind of substantial conversation. The teen couple is so devoid of passion – even in the DVD’s screen tests – that there’s little reason to root for them, and when Juno finally confides her puppy love for the gangly teen, it feels insincere. One wonders why Cody (who blogs adult content regularly) would pen such bland romance. 


At first impervious to maternalism, Juno’s banter slows once she learns that even embryos develop fingernails, and then sees Vanessa joyfully playing with a child. It’s a welcome relief when the teen abandons her flippant, verbal shield, revealing a soft vulnerability. In her admissions of helplessness she wins our affection – perhaps because audiences will want to help guide this artsy, intellectual wayward. Otherwise, Juno’s a walking tic, whose deep brown, Bambi eyes are best used to persuade mom and dad that she can handle any situation.


As Juno’s blue-collar parents, J.K. Simmons (Spiderman) and Allison Janney (Drop Dead Gorgeous) are pitch-perfect. Funny and candid, they’re a strongly matched couple, perhaps the best in the film. Janney is especially refreshing, as Bren, in a role that (for once) doesn’t tar the image of stepmothers. She defends Juno, when warranted, but also holds the teenager accountable for her capriciousness, with sobering reminders (like, never mess with a married man).


As Mac MacGuff, the superb Simmons (whose bark always exceeds his bite) seems more shaken by the thought of Paulie Bleeker having sex, than by his own daughter’s condition. It’s rather alarming how quickly he acquiesces to Juno’s plans of deeding the unborn child to a nice looking couple she found in the paper. But respect is both earned and rewarded in Juno, and Mac seems to know the worst is over.


Strangely, the screenplay never explores adoption’s emotional complexities, reducing Juno to a harmless comedy, rather than a polemic (see John Sayles’ Casa de los Babys, for a more refracted study). Cody’s story is fast-tracked through any real bumps in the road. There are no medical emergencies; no changes in diet, or lifestyle; no stark epiphanies. Juno’s convex form is never really addressed beyond an occasional burst of frustration (“I’m a planet!”). It’s a shame, really. Juno’s such a bright kid, audiences might have benefited from her gained wisdom.


Juno’s attractive friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) is supportive in a cavalier, better-you-than-me kind of way. With her breezy persona, Leah approaches the unexpected pregnancy as entertainment, always poised to poke fun at Juno’s surreal predicament. The message here is positive, if naive: Getting knocked up is no big thing; it can be remedied any number of ways, and the world will forgive you. There’s no moral ambiguity – abortion is given only a cursory glance – and little talk of repercussion (other than missing Prom). No one’s keen to see the promising young Juno as a dropout, or to ponder the lingering effects visited upon poor (unnamed baby) by the overbearing Vanessa. In the end, kids want to rejoin the garage band, and return to making out during gym class. No harm, no foul.


It may be socially irresponsible, but it’s quirky and cute. And neither the cast, nor crew, can be faulted for my disappointment. Critical fawning has unjustifiably elevated a snarky little comedy into some grand spectacle of indie genius. Is Juno good?  Absolutely. But like the title character, it’s a little rich. Instead of charmed, I found myself mildly annoyed.  Guess I should thank the Academy for that.

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