Thursday 26 June 2008

Juno (2007)

Thursday 26 June 2008
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody

Cast: Ellen Page (Juno MacGuff), Michael Cera (Paulie Bleeker), Jennifer Garner (Vanessa Loring), Jason Bateman (Mark Loring), Allison Janney (Bren MacGuff), J.K Simmons (Mac MacDuff), Olivia Thirlby (Leah), Eileen Pedde (Gerta Rauss), Rainn Wilson (Rollo), Daniel Clark (Steve Rendazo) & Darla Vandenbossche (Bleeker's Mom)

A smart-talking teenager gets pregnant and decides to give her unwanted baby to the perfect couple...

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the phenomenal success of independent film Juno (particularly in the US) now seems like a gross overreaction. Juno's not a terrible film, and it's heart is in the right place, but it's not as hip as it thinks it is -- with Diablo Cody's dialogue so manufactured and determinedly off-kilter as to become distracting. And the wordplay isn't even particularly quotable, as none of it trips off the tongue. Seriously, a few hours after watching Juno I couldn't remember a single decent line -- unlike, say, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Heathers or even Clueless.

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) gets herself up the duff, thanks to a moment of passion with jogging-obsessed nerd Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Juno's a quick-witted, eccentric teen (she puffs on an unlit pipe and uses a novelty hamburger phone), and her proactive nature has her seek out some adoptive parents for her unborn baby. Step forward Vanessa and Mark Loring (Alias' Jennifer Garner and Arrested Development's Jason Bateman); two childless, very successful, likeable yuppies who placed an advert in a magazine about adopting.

There follows a nice enough story (told over a year, chaptered by seasons), with Juno dealing with how her pregnancy affects her supportive old-fashioned dad Mac (Spider-Man's scene-stealer J.K Simmon), caring mom Bren (Allison Janney), nerdy "boyfriend" Bleeker and the Loring's -- lovely but anxious Vanessa and laid-back commercial composer Mark.

It's a difficult film to hate, as the story is delivered well and there's a sure-handed sense of care and attention from the actors and director Jason Reitman. Everyone knows they have an original script to work from (indeed, Cody won an Oscar), and the film serves her words and plot extremely well. I also enjoyed the sense of unpredictability, as the story avoided many of the developments and "twists" you expect from the get-go. That, and Ellen Page's undoubted star quality, are the main reasons to watch Juno.

However, there's a general sense of trying too hard. Juno's so obsessed with being smart-ass, that everything becomes a little distancing. It's not just that normal people don't talk like Juno and her immediate circle, it's that every character's loaded with nothing but that dialogue. The Loring's don't actually develop, even when the story demands they should, and Mark just vanishes in Act III with no resolution. The MacGuff's are sympathetic about everything; the perfect parents, but terribly boring. Bleeker plays third fiddle to events (particularly annoying as he's the baby's father), although casting Michael Cera was a wise decision. He might be a one-trick pony with limited range, but it's a trick he performs well and his well-judged silences in-between Cody's dialogue spoke louder than the hipster verbiage spat back in his face by Juno.

As for the eponymous preggers heroine... well, Page is a fantastic actress and perfect casting. She's an old soul in a young body, like Juno. I just don't really believe her character exists as anything other than Diablo Cody's idealized memories of her teen self. Juno references pop-culture no 16-year-old girl would know, or care, about in reality. I don't care how doggedly trendy and unconventional they're meant to be, none of it rings true. One day thirtysomething Cody will write a character her own age, and this Juno-style dialogue will find a more plausible outlet.

The tone is a mix of Wes Anderson (animations, weird fashions, kooky music) and Freaks & Geeks, with unfortunate slips into Napoleon Dynamite -- admittedly earning Juno its one laugh-out-loud moment with a "stink-eye" comment. I just wish Juno tickled the funnybone with greater regularity, instead of being content to perform verbal gymnastics that you become numbed to after 40-minutes.

Still, there's nothing here that's offensive and Page is a magnetic presence, Simmons is great, Garner impresses and Bateman's always good value. You'll be interested in seeing how it all pans out (such is the soap-like attraction of unwanted pregnancy stories), but it doesn't have much repeat value. Newcomer Diablo Cody should be applauded for winning an Oscar for her first screenplay (no mean feat, although it'll be a millstone around her neck now), but I'm not wholly convinced the script's that great -- it was just the most obvious element to celebrate in a film that touched mass audiences.

Overall, Juno's worth watching and sporadically amusing, but it's far from a miniature classic. Ellen Page makes Cody's complex language work off the page, and the nature of the story will keep your attention, but there's a whiff of emperor's new clothes about it all.

Fox Searchlight
Budget: $6.5 million
96 minutes