Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Juno" is due this holiday season

"Little Miss Sunshine's got nothin' on me"

It seems pretty clear that “Juno” will be the undeniable darling of 2007 indie cinema (stealing the crown from last year’s winner, “Little Miss Sunshine”). It’s the kind of movie that has critics falling all over themselves to praise it and people falling all over each other to go see it (and say they’ve seen it, and discuss its pros and cons endlessly).

So, here begins my praise. My favorite part of Juno was Mr. and Mrs. MacGuff (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney). Too often in movies, parents are shown as the “explanation” for why their teenagers drink/smoke/do drugs/get pregnant. Mom and Dad are usually abusive, neglectful, druggies/boozers (the first generation) or just plain oblivious. The audience is supposed to nod along, agreeing that this is acceptable explanation for their children’s behavior. Brenda and Mac MacGuff are sharp, attentive and loving parents who handle the news that their daughter is pregnant like, well, adults (no screaming and wailing “where did we go WRONG?!” here).

The MacGuffs are actual parents, full of beleaguered love, and it’s amazing to me how refreshing that is. Through the movie, they act the way I expect my own parents would have if I’d gotten pregnant at 16 (though I doubt my mother would’ve had the pluck to comically rip into the sonogram technician for daring to pass judgment on her daughter the way that Janney does in one scene). I think the biggest laugh of the whole movie was when Juno waddles into the kitchen, eight months pregnant, and her dad (barely glancing up from his paper) remarks “Hey there, big, puffy version of Junebug.”

Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner are fantastic as a 30-something married couple with polar opposite attitudes about “growing up.” Bateman’s Mark is a guy desperately trying to hold on to the hipness of his youth as he’s being dragged, silently kicking and screaming, into the confining role of upper middle class suburban fatherhood. Juno finds common ground in their shared love of music, guitar-playing and slasher movies. They enjoy spending time together, seemingly oblivious to the vaguely inappropriate nature of their relationship (they always hang out when Mark’s wife isn’t around). In him, Juno sees someone who still manages to “stay cool” despite all of his adult responsibilities. In her current situation (as the “cautionary whale”), seeing someone who can, at least on the surface, pull off that dichotomy appeals to her. Mark enjoys her mild version of hero worship; he desperately wants to still be seen as young and hip. Juno’s repeated visits serve as affirmation that he’s still relevant.

Don't be fooled: He's not really a grownup

Mark obviously thinks (or hopes) that she has a little crush on him, something that Juno, despite her grownup situation, is too naïve to see. The scene where Mark and Juno’s disparate viewpoints on their relationship comes to a head is one of the best in the movie (I don’t want to spoil it; it’s that good).

I don’t know why I was surprised at how great Jennifer Garner is in this movie. I’m still trying to figure out if her straitlaced, proper Vanessa really was that prim and uptight, or whether she mold herself into that persona because she thought that’s who she had to be in order to be seen as a “real mom.” Her desperation for a child is quiet, heart wrenching and consuming; she feels incomplete unless she’s a mother. I’m finding that I can’t pick the right words to describe just how amazing she was in this role. How about this? Just watch the scene where she runs into Juno in the mall and kneels down to try to talk to the baby that will soon be hers (but isn’t, really). When it’s over, you tell me if you can put into words the mesmerizing job she did as Vanessa Loring.

Enough has been said about Ellen Page and Michael Cera, so I’m not going to add much to it. Page does a great job at delivering the quirky, pop culture-laden dialogue written for her. In the hands of a lesser actress, lines like “silencio, old man” or “I’m going to call Women Now because they help women now” would come off as cheesy and trite. Cera is great (and everyone lauds his comic timing and wry humor endlessly) but I wish he’d play a different character for once. I’d rather an actor be great and layered instead of brilliant but one-note. To me, Cera is the latter…so I hope he picks something that allows him to stretch a bit for his next role.

From stripper to writer of snappy one-liners...who knew?

The dialogue is snappy and full of hip lingo and thoroughly modern one-liners that, thankfully, only occasionally fall flat. I really think, perhaps counterintuitively, that writing quirky, modern comic dialogue (though it’s supposedly more the way people talk nowadays) is actually one of the hardest things to do. It’s so easy for it to try too hard and end up sounding cheesy and hollow. This happens occasionally in “Juno,” most notably for me in the scene in the drugstore where Page’s Juno chats with the drugstore clerk (Rainn Wilson) about pregnancy tests. But overall, Diablo Cody’s script is a real achievement: it takes a story told time and time again with familiar characters, turns it on its head and then, when you’re not looking, turns it on its head again.

My one big complaint: the music. It was overly folky, self-indulgent and incredibly distracting. UGH. I hated that the movie ended the way that it did (I the to spoil things too much, so apologies for my vagueness). I get it. You’re an indie film. Even your music is quirky and almost painfully hip. That doesn’t necessarily make it good. Just FYI.

1 comment:

danielletbd said...

I HATED the music! I really hated how the song at the end started when Ellen Page was first getting on her bike and then faded out when she got to Michael Cera's house, only to start back up again with them singing it and lingering and on extreme wide shot where they repeat the same verses in full.

I thought overall the film was awesome, but there were a few parts that were a bit stagey, both in dialogue and direction. When we first get to Marc and Vanessa's house, it (and they) appear a little too put-together in a anal retentive WASPy sort of way to really have a baby fit in their lives; I thought that was going to be a red flag for Juno, but then it was dropped and suddenly they became different people when we get to know them. It's not perfect by any means, but it's the most real film in a long time :)