Monday, February 18, 2008

Best Picture Previews: Juno

Juno’s opening salvo reminded me of a self-conscious hyper-intelligent girl on a first date. She’s smart, she desperately needs you to know that she’s smart and, well, now she just flung her martini into your lap with a histrionic hand gesture. The interplay between the lead character and Rainn Wilson is hip to the point of absurdity. It’s as thought the film’s opening was rewritten by a modern day James Joyce.

Fortunately, the nervous dater happens to be a really hot chick. Once it calms down a bit, Juno is an observant comedy with a (profoundly) distinct voice and some of the crispiest dialogue in ages. There’s a bit of Mamet in screenwriter Diablo Cody’s cadence, but also a hyper-awareness of the mundane that forces us to pay attention. A burger phone is funny. A burger phone as explanation for a poor connection is uproarious,

Everyone reading this blog knows that film’s plot by now. Teen gets pregnant and finds adoptive parents. It has been called a pro-life comedy, though I can’t imagine that is what the filmmakers intended. The film does not celebrate death, I suppose, but few comedies do, and any serious consideration of an abortion would have ended the film about 22 minutes in. Call it the politics of extended running times.

The film’s beauty is not in its message (I’m not sure it has one, which is refreshing in this era of the Clooney-Christ) but in its truth. In this film, we see everyone contending with teenage pregnancy in a manner befitting his or her age range. Juno may talk like a stripper turned screenwriter, but she responds to emotional and physiological changes as though she has never experienced them (which, of course, she hasn’t).

Contrast Juno’s bafflement with the collectedness of her parents. When Juno confesses she is pregnant, their only real surprise is at her choice of mate, though the father concedes he assumed drugs to be responsible for Juno’s erratic behavior. No faces are slapped in this movie, not a single valuable dish is broken. Abortion politics are handled in a low-key fashion, and the movie moves forward once it has mined it’s precipitating event for comic gold.

But Juno is realistic, not optimistic. The would-be adoptive parents have a terrible marriage, a fact which reveals itself slowly in the interactions between the father-to-be and Juno. In an original twist, however, the film assigns blame. Eschewing the Braffian moral code, in which women impose unfair expectations of maturity and fidelity upon males, Jason Bateman’s character is selfish and lazy.

The film is not unsympathetic to the plight a 30-something former grunger, and he is far from a traditional antagonist, but the film is astute in observing that he really should have grown up by now. Juno is that rare film that actually expects something of its characters. Juno herself recognizes her selfishness, as any mature woman does toward the twilight of her teen years. Other characters fail to live up to their expectations, with disastrous consequences.

If anything, then, Juno is an authentically feminist film. As a former stripper, Cody has seen men engaging their very worst impulses, and every negative plot development can be attributed to a genuine failure of men to act like men. That means sometimes saying no to your girlfriend’s sexual advances (and, certainly, perceived advances by a teenage surrogate mother). That means putting the guitar down and helping paint the damn bedroom.

But even then, Juno delivers its message with a dose of encouragement, and even a bit of humility. As hip as it may be, the film is not too cool for tears or genuine emotions. Few critics have made note of the film’s casting. Nearly all of the film’s leads have a strong television background, most notably Bateman, Jennifer Garner and Allison Janney. Perhaps this explains the ability of each actor to execute comedic elements while holding onto a delicately simple narrative.

Like it’s raunchy young brother “Knocked Up”, Juno performed well critically and financially. Hopefully, Hollywood will learn the correct lesson from its success. Audiences are not asking for more pregnancy movies (please God no, in fact), but films that reveal truths about familiar situations. You know, actual drama, filmed and presented on a wide screen?

Juno is real drama at it’s best.

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