Monday, January 21, 2008

Goddamn, dude, you're such an asshole!

Juno starts with an evasive depiction of teen sexuality that flirts with Pretty Baby-esque provocation and ends with a cutesy-poo tableau of arrested development. In the line from point A to point B, one can find everything both insightful and maddening about Diablo Cody's screenwriting debut. The story of a smart-alecky 16-year-old dealing with an unplanned pregnancy is told with a geniunely original voice that too often sacrifices its believable, sympathetic portrait of its characters for easy laughs and creaky, formulaic sitcom cliches. If this sounds like a pan, I must stress that, in some ways, Juno lives up to its hype - it's well-acted, handsomely shot and, in the end, genuinely moving. In other words, its a pretty good character study that could have been a classic were it not in love, more than anything else, with its own pseudo-indie preciousness.

At first, Juno (Ellen Page) reminds of a watered-down Enid Coleslaw, all hipster sarcasm and outsider posturing. What gradually emerges, however, is an identifiable portrait of adolescent uncertainty - when Juno tells her father "I don't know what kind of girl I am," the truth is not in the statement itself but in the self-conscious motivations behind it. Juno is a character who rarely says what's on her mind, her sexual aggression and broader sense of yearning revealing itself through her impeccable taste in raw, primal rock and ultraviolent horror (even if she is foolish enough to declare 2000 Maniacs "better than Suspiria"). She's so believable, in fact, that the moments of unbelievability that might be less glaring in the teen programmer they belong in clash uncomfortably with the very specific world Cody has created. While I can believe that Juno would bypass abortion in favor of surrogate parents Mark and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), I need more than a montage of clicking pens and a Planned Parenthood staffed by dead-eyed hos (though I love Emily Perkins) to convince me of this. Similarly, when Juno makes a pivotal decision in the film's final third, I could not believe it, particularly since everything we've learned about Juno, her family and the surrogates seem to be pointing towards several different, more complicated but richer resolutions. This is symptomatic of the film's overall tendency towards wearing its protagonist's nonconformity like a badge while hedging towards the least provocative or difficult outcome. Nowhere is this more evident than in the much commented-upon disconnect between Juno's professed musical heroes and the film's bloodless, oh-so-hip soundtrack - you won't actually hear any Patti Smith in the film, but if you like Kimya Dawson, you're in luck.

I hesitate to place too much blame at Cody's feet - most of these are fairly standard beginner mistakes, and I suspect she's got some great films ahead of her. More suspect is director Jason Reitman, who emphasizes Juno's accessible quirkiness over its sharper edges. Reitman's a gifted visual storyteller, but the unnecessary moment in Thank You For Smoking where we see the guilt on Aaron Eckhart's face and know that, actually, he feels really bad about all this is echoed throughout Juno. Were the characters given more room to breathe, the film might resonate more deeply - instead, Reitman's eagerness to please results in a crowd-pleaser that could have been something deeper and more honest. Still, it's hard to complain too loudly with a cast - particularly Allison Janney as Juno's patient stepmom and Jason Bateman finding insight in a completely unbelievable character - that glosses over most of the rough patches. At the heart of the film are Page, whose work as Juno registers on levels that neither Reitman or Cody seem able to anticipate, and Michael Cera, again demonstrating his mastery of mumbled asides as Juno's tic-tac-scarfing babydaddy. There's a perfect, heartbreaking kind of confusion in their scenes together that the film is unable to support - beneath the quirk is the disturbing suggestion that Juno and Bleeker will grow up to be Mark and Vanessa, but the film itself seems either unaware or uninterested in its underlying melancholy.

A far more successful collaboration between writer/director and star is Margot at the Wedding, a portrait of a woman incapable of not wreaking emotional havoc wherever she goes. As Margot, a woman attending her sister Pauline's (Jennifer Jason Leigh, typically brilliant) wedding to unsuccessful writer Malcolm (Jack Black), Nicole Kidman creates a portrait of an emotional train wreck cursed with a wounding sense of honesty which she attempts to drown with drugs and writerly affectations. Diluted by Kidman's star status is the fact that she's one of the most intelligent, compelling actors working today - her performance is as clear-eyed and unsparing as her similarly underestimated work in films like Eyes Wide Shut and especially Birth. Noah Baumbach's screenplay, coupled with his understated direction (aided hugely by Harris Savides' underlit cinematography, which suggests one endless stoned afternoon) reveals worlds about his characters and their inability to quell their obsessions with their endless intellectualizing. It's not a flattering portrait of the life of the mind, but despite her off-putting qualities and near-abusive treatment of her son (Zane Pais), Margot emerges as sympathetic - when a spurned lover (Ciaran Hinds) confronts Margot about her hypocrisy using her own blunt approach at a public reading, her abrupt deterioration is heartbreaking.

Where Juno practically fetishizes its protagonist's pretensions, Baumbach dissects his characters' intellectual elitism with surgical precision, revealing them as no more than the sum of the fears and urges they struggle to repress (or, at least place in ironic quotation marks, as Margot says of Malcolm's "funny" mustache). It's funny, but not in the bittersweet way The Squid and the Whale was funny - the laughs here are nervous, a way of distancing ourselves from the emotional horrorshow onscreen. It's no surprise, then, that Margot was largely dismissed when it played at the cinema where I work (one theatregoer left a comment in our book saying that "we do not need other people's problems," while another simply said "Margot's Wedding sucks!"), while Juno has been playing to packed audiences every night. It's easy to understand a character who is unusual like we think we are, but harder to enjoy a character whose flaws mirror ones we dare not admit, let alone laugh at in mixed company.


Anonymous said...

sadly, Juno got a fucking oscar nod for best picture AND best director. I'd say best screenplay and ellen page getting in for best actress is fine, but come on! where's the love for zodiac and margot at the wedding?

Andrew Bemis said...

Yeah, no love for Zodiac is just plain ridiculous. Overall, the nominations were better than usual, though it's still just a game show (a fact that, should the strike not be resolved, the inevitable press conference/infotainment spectacle will only underline).

Anonymous said...

though, I did hear that the studio didn't do much in the way of promoting Zodiac..

Anonymous said...

okay, I'm watchin Juno right now on a bootleg and it's okay: Ellen page and JK Simmons are good, Garner is irritating, and Bateman is well...his character could've so much more deliciously tormented. The type of guy who sneaks a swig from a bottle of whisky when the wife's out. Here, he was just creepy

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