Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Rizzle Dizzle: Juno

[With the Academy Awards approaching, this week The Cooler is posting reviews of the Best Picture nominees, written upon the films’ release in the author’s pre-blog era. Feel free to use the comments section to argue why your favorite nominee should win or why any of these films didn’t deserve to be nominated.]

If the name Diablo Cody doesn’t mean anything to you, give it a few days. It soon will. As of December 2007, my crystal ball says that by the end of February, Cody will be an Oscar winner. A tattooed 29-year-old former stripper whose virgin screenwriting effort has made her Hollywood’s latest “it” commodity, Cody has a colorful back story that the Academy simply won’t be able to refuse. Which isn’t to mention that her screenplay provides the skeleton for an unusually enchanting movie that’s impossible to resist.

The movie is Juno, starring a fantastic Ellen Page as the titular center of an endearing teen comedy. That’s teen as in “about teens,” not as in “for teens only.” In a year that saw Knocked Up falsely lauded by critics as an adult comedy (as in “possessing adult humor”), Juno is the picture that truly captures the spirit of teen life and observes it with the wisdom that comes from growing old enough to realize how foolish we really are. If Superbad is the movie this year that reminds us (unfortunately) of how we were as teens, Juno is the movie that reminds us of how we saw ourselves.

That’s probably why Juno rings true in our hearts even when it clanks around in our brains. That the buzz around Cody has been compared to the hype assigned to Quentin Tarantino upon the release of Pulp Fiction is all too appropriate. Like Tarantino, Cody writes stylized dialogue that is sometimes too stylish for its own good. The unfortunate (and perhaps unfair) result is that the same writing that wins us over also triggers our abnormality alarm. One second we breathe deep on the fresh air of Cody’s unique voice, and the next we find ourselves thinking: “Come on, no one really talks like that!”

Whether Cody is a one-trick pony like Tarantino, who seems to be writing the same movie over and over again in different genres, we’ll find out in time. What we know now is that Juno is a triumph and a niche unto itself, much in the same way of Rian Johnson’s Brick, another movie about teens with fashionable-beyond-their-years wordplay. You can pooh-pooh it for being different if you want, or you can listen to the wisdom provided by Juno’s father, played superbly by J.K. Simmons, and fall in love with this film for exactly what it is.

I suggest the latter. And the truth is that I can’t imagine how you could make any other decision. Directed by Thank You For Smoking’s Jason Reitman, Juno has too much for you to fall in love with. It all starts with Page. Her performance in last year’s Hard Candy was eye-opening for its mix of vulnerability and venom, but here Page – who is only 20 – gets to settle into what may be the role of a lifetime. Juno MacGuff isn’t a high school misfit, she’s an illfit, as in ill-fit for categorization. Juno doesn’t care much for schoolwork and doesn’t seem to take part in any organized activities, but she’s not a rebel, a delinquent or an outcast. Her misdecision to initiate sex with the passive Tic-Tac-popping Paulie Bleeker (an adorable Michael Cera) leads to the unplanned pregnancy that’s the crux of the story, but Juno is defined as much by the decisions she makes after fertilization as the one that led to it.

That’s where Cody’s screenplay is truly brilliant. The dialogue grabs your attention and is worth several genuine laughs (the word “shenanigans” has never been put to better use), but what sets Juno apart from most movies is its genuine compassion for its characters. Notice that this is the rare picture in which the teen’s parents (Simmons and the always enjoyable Allison Janney) aren’t reduced to buffoons or monsters. When Juno reveals her pregnancy, the ‘rents don’t lock their daughter in a cage or even yell. Nor do they pretend to have a clue about the best way to handle the situation. But, just as important, notice that Juno never rails against her parents either. Far too many movies these days thrive on the notion that teen-parent relations are as vicious as confrontations outside abortion clinics between Pro Lifers and Pro Choicers. But, refreshingly, Cody’s screenplay doesn’t require its characters to wear such clichĂ©s.

Speaking of abortion though, perhaps I should note that Juno considers it but decides against it. That’s what leads her to seek out adoptive parents, which leads all of us to Vanessa and Mark Loring. They are played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, and though I suspect that neither actor will be recognized with any award nominations, you won’t find a better pair of supporting performances. In a sign of strong writing, both play characters we grow to understand over time. Garner’s Vanessa immediately strikes us as an uptight control freak whose desire to be a mother might be rooted in a need to attain some sort of Martha Stewart-like perfection. But a touchingly awkward scene at a shopping mall – which could have gone wrong a dozen different ways but doesn’t – changes all that. As for Bateman’s Mark, we bond with his friendly ease immediately and yet keep him at arm’s length, unsure of his motives. I must have flip-flopped on Mark’s purity of character at least four times before we figure him out for good, and the ambiguity struck me as remarkably human.

Actually, that’s what I like most about the entire film: its humanity. In the opening minutes, Cody has her characters performing verbal stunt work. It’s “home-skillet” this and “fo’ shizz” that, with some Sunny D references and a hamburger phone thrown in on the side. And it’s cute, sure, but it’s hollow, too. But all that changes with the scene in which Juno tells her parents about her pregnancy.

If you’ve seen the preview (otherwise: spoiler warning), you’ve seen the exchange in which Juno’s dad says, “I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when,” and Juno replies, “I’m not sure what kind of girl I am.” On the page, it’s nothing. In the preview, it’s not much more. But in the movie, with a perfect contemplative pause from Page, it’s a shot to the heart. Juno is filled with these pure and honest moments, and even when the sparkly dialogue loses its luster and the laughter fades, the warmth endures. Fo’ shizz.


Mark said...

Another excellent review. I didn't love this movie as much as everyone else did, but I did enjoy it and appreciate it and I won't be surprised if it picks up more than one award this Sunday.

My beef isn't exactly that "no one talks like that," but it's related: I think Cody's writing is too self-consciously cool. I think her whole cute backstory has gone to her head. Also she and Reitman annoyed me in an interview with Terry Gross.

Interesting that you compare her with Tarantino, whose work I love. You're right about their stylized dialog being a common thread. Maybe I'm outta my nut.

I also agree with your Bellamy Awards praise for Michael Cera and for the wardrobe choices.

Jason Bellamy said...

I think her whole cute backstory has gone to her head.

If you haven't seen them, watch Cody's appearances on Letterman: before Juno and after Juno.

She's entertaining. Cute. Better than your average guest, certainly. But she also sounds ... over-practiced. One of the reasons I've always preferred Letterman to Leno is that his policy against pre-interview interviews makes his sessions seem less scripted (because they are). But Cody overcomes that on her own.

Note to Cody haters (and I'm not one...at least not yet): it's worth your time to watch the "after Juno" clip if only to enjoy how awkward she looks throughout the interview trying to figure out where/how to rest her arms. Good times.

Ghibli said...


Glad to see there's another Fresh Air fan out there. If you have not heard the interview with Cristian Mungiu-- writer/director of the new "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," here's the podcast:

Oppression and Abortion in Mungiu's '4 Months' 47:09 2/7/2008

I particularly enjoyed the discussion about 1980's Soviet-era Eastern bloc cinema in general and the ways it has and has not changed.

Mark said...

Thanks for the tip, ghibli. I'll check it out. -- mm

Allison said...

As you know, Jason, I loved this movie. I thought the writing was such that each character provided a lot of depth and personality. The casting was also spot on for me as each person -- no matter how small the role was able to draw me in.

As for Cody, we'll see. I don't mind her, but it'll be interesting to see if she -- and Page -- can keep their distance from Hollywood enough to preserve their edge. I think Matt Damon was able to escape the whole Good Will Hunting/movie star thing, but Ben Affleck wasn't as lucky. Although, he does seem to have found his way back.

Anonymous said...

I'm an unfortunate late-comer to Juno and realize I have to get to the theatre more often. Couldn't agree more with your review, especially the humanity of the characters. Especially loved the scene near the end with Juno and her father: the dialogue was terrific. Wes.