Summary: motormouth wallflower Juno gets pregnant in high school, normal pregnant movie stuff happens, except with swearing and lots of snark. She also makes friends with an older married couple interested in adoption.
One of those movies like “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Crash” that’s overwritten within an inch of its life so that every spark of human spontaneity is choked out of it. “Juno” is script, all script, and nothing but the script, and is likely to be a hit because the movie is largely what the characters say and sometimes what they do, with none of that annoying “cinema” stuff getting in the way. It’s revealing that we only know kids are ogling and ostracizing Juno because she says so, not because we see it.
In addition to being a standard Indiewood explosion of contrived quirkiness, “Juno’s” gimmick – its selling point, its main annoyance, its entire raison d’etre – is that every character speaks in a nonstop stream of snarky, hipper-than-thou one-liners laden with more popculture allusions than “Shrek” on crack. The movie doesn’t limit itself to Valley Talk or Southernisms or Ebonics but is a pastiche of every slang imaginable. Watch the preview – almost the entire movie is like that, relentlessly, with all the acoustic guitar and intentionally bad singing, and the cluttering of the frame with kitsch and quirk and hamburger phones (matched later with a T-bone phone).
Everyone spouts one-liners, and if they don’t spout one-liners they set Juno up for one-liners, and if they don’t set Juno up for one-liners they set themselves up to be taken down by Juno or her brassy stepmom so that the audience can go “oooooh!” You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. And if you hate it, you’ll either get past it, or you won’t. My wife got past it. I found it kind of insufferable. Each individual line is probably funny but I only laughed about one-and-a-half times during “Juno” because the sheer relentlessness rendered it monotonous. In the valley of the sane, the man who is insane is king.
The big questions are: what do the dialogue and hamburger phones and striped socks contribute to the film? Does any of this cleverness need to be there, or could it just as easily (and needlessly) be applied to any film about any subject? Is “Juno” just the most needlessly ornamental film ever made? Why is “Juno” so annoying while the intensely abstracted dialogue in “Brick,” another high school stylization, so enjoyable? Or for that matter, David Mamet, “His Girl Friday,” or any film noir? Why is “Brick’s” declaration of “I gave him up to watch him get eaten, not to see you get fed” brilliant while “Juno’s” “Desperately Seeking Spawn” is groan-inducing? (Speaking of groan-inducing, the last line of narration is “I guess normalcy isn’t our thing.”)
I don’t have an answer but I have some thoughts, and none of them have anything to do with “realism” (it’s a movie, for crying out loud). I know I’m talking a lot about dialogue but, really, that’s ALL “Juno” is; it has Oscar for Best Original Screenplay written all over it. Maybe it’s that the dialogue in “Juno” is ultimately a virtue, presented solely to make us like the characters more, whereas in films noir the stylized dialogue is ultimately a symptom of doomed souls, cynicism, or the corrupt world in which hardboiled detectives and femmes fatale live.
Tubbs and Crockett may sound awesome when they go on about kilos and go-fast boats, but it’s only because the rest of their lives are devoid of meaning. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell may blow us away with how fast they can talk and how good they are at their jobs in “His Girl Friday,” but don’t forget that they’re awful people. The same goes for Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity” – we don’t like him because he talks fast, we like him because he talks fast AND is a scumbag.
Anyway, the second half of “Juno” is better than the first, in which it tones down the snark a little and the characters are allowed to take a couple breaths. The wife (Jennifer Garner) of the couple that wants to adopt Juno’s baby becomes more than just a yuppie shrew; in fact the dynamic between her and her husband is the most interesting one in the movie. She’s got babies on the brain but he’s lukewarm and not ready to finish being a kid himself. The husband is played by Jason Bateman, whose low-key delivery is the best thing about the movie; his first one-liner was among the few things that got a laugh out of me. “Juno” also features Michael Cera as Juno’s impregnator; he and Bateman are both veterans of TV’s “Arrested Development,” a show that always struck me as trying waaaaay too hard. There should be good crossover appeal between it and “Juno.”
The movie has precisely two insights. The first is a comment from Juno about boy’s junk as they’re jogging. It’s refreshing to see a teen comedy in which the male body is an object of fascination / revulsion, instead of the female body. Even more interesting is her comment that the jocks that pick on her secretly lust after her and every other dorky outcast girl, and not after cheerleaders. And it suddenly hit me that every teen comedy in which the nerd girl takes off her glasses, lets down her hair, and wins the quarterback are male fantasies and not female fantasies at all. And the brown-heavy cinematography by Eric Steelberg gives the movie a palpable, autumnal quality. Ellen Page is almost certain to get an Oscar nomination, but you’re not alone if her smug crackle-voice narration makes you want to put a shotgun in your mouth.
Oh yeah, and because every review of “Juno” mentions that it’s written by stripper-turned-blogger-turned screenwriter Diablo Cody, so will I. “Juno” is much like a blog: a vaguely self-congratulatory nexus point for mass-cult signs and signifiers. Eventually some movie had to do it and, you know, I applaud “Juno” for being the first.
Finished Wednesday, December 12, 2007
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