juno-poster.jpgstarring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman
written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman
rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and language.

Juno MacGuff (Page) is pregnant. This is a problem because she is only 16 years old, living at home with her parents, and the father (Cera) is a friend from high school. Nevertheless, with admirable courage, enviable charisma and an endless supply of snarky one-liners, she will navigate the difficulties of teenage pregnancy to deliver a baby to be adopted by perfect couple Mark and Vanessa Loring (Bateman and Garner). She’ll have a lot of growing up to do along the way, but as it turns out, she may not be the only one.

Note: I actually saw this for the first time about three weeks ago, and a second time today (and I’d gladly see it again). However, since now I don’t have time to see a new movie this week (and my stomach isn’t convinced it wants to take a crack at Cloverfield, even if the rest of me does) and the buzz around Juno has continued to build to the point where it might just score some hefty Oscar nominations in a few days, I thought I’d discuss it.

With Oscars in mind, let’s get this said and out of the way: Juno is this year’s Little Miss Sunshine in that it is a small-scale, heart-warming comedy with deeply-felt family values, but it is not in any way a family movie. Only time will tell if it is this year’s Little Miss Sunshine in other respects as well. Juno is a hilarious movie with a central character that is almost too likable. This is in part thanks to an inconsistently witty script by first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody, but mostly (in my opinion) thanks to the virtuoso performance given by Ellen Page in the role. Many of the lines she is given to fire saucily at her co-stars are awkward and a little too aware of their own sardonic quirkiness, but Page shows the character’s heart and allows her to be vulnerable in all the right ways and at all the right moments so we can see past her shield of crackling bluster.

I was reminded of something I’ve heard about Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As the story goes, the actors who appeared in the first performance ever of the extremely funny play hadn’t fully realized the humor behind the lines they were delivering, and they deadpanned their way through the script to great effect. The audience was rolling in the aisles. The following night, their delivery was colored by the knowledge that particular lines they were delivering were meant to elicit a laugh, and consequently the performance suffered greatly. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but the reverse is true of Juno. It is the screenplay, rather than the performances, that is often all-too-aware of its own cleverness, and there are several moments of dialogue that couldn’t possibly be made to sound natural.

That cute indie soundtrack can also be a bit overwhelming at times. This is coming from someone who generally likes movies with that sort of sound going on in the background, but Juno allows the music to become invasive and distracting on more than one occasion. It sounds great and all, but it should never be allowed to pull the focus away from whatever is taking place on the screen. The musical selections are extremely typical of ever cutesy movie with quirky characters from Napoleon Dynamite to Thumbsucker, as are the “rough,” hand-drawn elements of credit sequences and so forth. Juno feels like it’s trying too hard to be endearingly odd; quirky when it should be conventional, and conventional when it should be unique.

These are, at best, minor quibbles in the context of discussing the entertainment value of the film. Juno is fun and watchable and definitely a pleasure to see more than once. Some people might find the overall tone extremely annoying, but it works in terms of total effect even if not every single moment plays perfectly. Ellen Page isn’t a lone stand-out, either (although her performance necessarily anchors and defines everything that happens). The whole cast is great, from large roles to small, and I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see more than one acting nomination go Juno‘s way if any do. J.K. Simmons is always a pleasure to watch, for instance, and I saw some fine work by a few young actors that I haven’t seen in anything else yet (nope, didn’t see Superbad, but I’m starting to think that I want to).

Juno is a good movie and entertaining on more than one level, and it has a few profound things to say. It’s not exactly great cinema, more of a temporal hit that exists very successfully in this particular cultural moment. I think public reaction shows that this little film has tapped into something that our society wants to hear, even if that just means they like smart-alec teens who are far wittier than real teenagers (or even adults). I think it’s something more, as well, but mostly it’s just a really good time (or maybe more than one).

~ by Jared on January 18, 2008.

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