Sunday, December 16, 2007

Juno

Juno feels like two movies. The first is quite annoying, and lasts for about 30 minutes. In this movie, the talented Ellen Page is shackled with a title character that the script, in the accurate words of the person I saw it with, "sells way too hard." Juno is a 16-year-old -- in Minnesota, I believe -- who is pregnant from the one time she had sex with her goofy, lovable friend Paulie (Michael Cera). But even more important than her condition is the fact that Juno won't shut up. In order to make sure we don't mistake her for anything but a saucy, smart, disaffected young thing, the script (written by Diablo Cody, a self-proclaimed "sheltered, suburban geek" who wrote a book about her time as a stripper, a venture she evidently undertook to prove how saucy she is) doesn't allow her to get through a single sentence -- whether it be to a friend, a parent, or an abortion adviser -- without some wise-ass flourish on the end of it. She makes references to things that even sarcastic 16-year-olds probably wouldn't know or care about -- ThunderCats is on the "slightly believable" end of this spectrum; Soupy Sales is on the "entirely unbelievable" one. I read at least one review that said the dialogue comes across as what a 30-something thinks a 16-year-old sounds like. For the most part, I agree.

Juno also does ridiculously quirky things, like taking her family's living room furniture and setting it up on Paulie's lawn, where she delivers the news from an armchair. That idea makes Wes Anderson look like a realist. Ugh. And even though Juno worships hard-edged punk rockers from the 1970s, the movie insists on backing her every movement in these opening scenes with a spineless, faux-naive brand of folk that could drive one to homicide (songs provided by the cloying Kimya Dawson). After the first act, I was prepared to eventually leave the theater feeling terribly old, and to give this generation of viewers their version of Rushmore if their version of it was going to stink this badly.

Somewhat miraculously, the second movie, which lasts about an hour, is pretty great. It helps that the focus pulls back a bit from Juno to include several fully imagined supporting characters. Her father and stepmother (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) help her through the process, including an initial meeting with Vanessa and Mark (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), the wealthy couple that hopes to adopt the baby once it's born. In getting to know Juno (she periodically reappears at the couple's McMansion to show them sonogram results or to watch old slasher flicks with Mark), Mark remembers a few youthful dreams he's left behind. Their relationship could have been embarrassing and unconvincing, but Bateman and Page make it one of the movie's most appealing charms. There's still a lingering thought that Cody is trying awfully hard to sound hip through her teenage conduit, but she does end up crafting a climax and denouement that gently places every character where you might expect them to land.

If Cody had just pruned her heroine's Dennis Miller-like penchant for cultural references by at least a third, the movie would have benefited. When Juno runs into Vanessa at a mall, and says that some people believe a baby in the womb can hear you speaking, we don't really need the "even though it's like, 10,000 leagues under the sea" tagger. Juno seems like an ultimately decent kid, one who would turn off the smarm from time to time. Page isn't responsible for this flaw -- once Cody's overly eager script gets out of her way, she's phenomenal, deserving of the buzz that preceded the movie's release by several months. Cera's disarming performance as Paulie is never overly relied on, but allowed to pop in at just the right moments, so that his appearances in the final scenes with Page have a fresh power. In fact, the final 45 minutes of Juno constituted one of my better experiences at a theater in 2007, even in a strong year for movies. Or, as the Daily Racing Form might sum it up: Stumbled at the gate, finished clear.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

Sharp review, John. I don't plan on seeing Juno in a theater, but you expressed what you felt were the strengths and weaknesses of the movie without writing a review of the celebrity of Brooke Busey-Hunt.

3:13 AM  
Anonymous Josh said...

I completely agree, i wasn't buying it, but then it relaxed.

and the thundercats thing had me thinking too. i mean, that'd be like me quoting All in the Family, which I wouldn't.

george michael!

7:28 AM  

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