Thursday, December 06, 2007
In the past few years, I've started approaching the late-fall movie season with more than a little dread. Sure, it's nice that there's generally an interesting new movie or two every weekend for a change, but the Oscar™ hype machine really cheeses me off. It seems like every halfway decent movie that fits into an Academy-sanctioned category- inspirational true story, handsome period piece, hard-hitting drama, indie charmer- attracts an inordinate amount of attention about its awards chances. "Oscar-worthy" is the movie world's version of "electable"- a description that has less to do with quality than taste-making, and one that is too often wielded by critics in lieu of a more useful adjective. And yes, I realize that the lion's share of Oscar nominations are culled from the fall product, but just because Sweeney Todd is being released in December doesn't make Johnny Depp's performance any more worthy of being honored than, say, Michael Shannon in Bug or Sam Rockwell in Joshua.
Another problem with the awards-season hype is that it tends to build up movies too much, so it's almost as though they've peaked before they've even hit theatres in earnest. This is particularly common in the case of small-scale films, the highest-profile of which is Jason Reitman's Juno. It's a warm, likable movie to be sure, but ever since its launch on the fall festival circuit the buzz has been practically deafening. I can't help but wonder if it's all become too much for this unassuming movie to bear. But I'm not here to assess the movie's awards-season chances, now am I? The question I'm here to answer is this- is Juno a good movie.?I'm pleased to say that, yeah, it's pretty good. Not a world-beater by any means, but it doesn't pretend to be one, and the least I can do is to not burden it with unreasonable expectations.
Juno has been compared to last year's Little Indie That Could Little Miss Sunshine, a movie that I actually kind of hated, so I was pleased that Juno had the good taste to be easygoing where its predecessor was shrill. That said, Juno does exhibit some of the more unfortunate tendencies of off-Hollywood comedies. Many of these can be found in the screenplay penned by Diablo Cody, the entertainment press' latest It Screenwriter (and at the height of the writers' strike, no less!). Her story construction is fairly solid, but her sassy dialogue has roughly a 3-to-1 ratio of distracting to clever. Juno is Cody's first produced screenplay, and I hope that if she does indeed have a fruitful career in Hollywood she can temper her tendencies towards overwritten dialogue and trust the story to do the lifting.
Thankfully, Jason Reitman's direction has calmed down since 2005's Thank You For Smoking. Sensing that the last thing's Cody's quirkiness needed was more directorial shenanigans (one can only cringe to imagine what a Jared Hess would have made of this), Reitman assumes a low-key style and a relaxed pace for the film. There are a handful of hopelessly precious moments, but I'll accept that in exchange for his assured direction of actors. Reitman always lets his scenes run longer than you would expect, allowing the characters time to deepen, or just to pause and reflect. Reitman never rushes his cast or pushes them to hit they're marks before they're good and ready, and this patience is rewarded.
In addition, Reitman seems to have recognized that his cast was his ace in the hole. It takes an actress of rare talent to deliver a line like "You should've gone to China, you know, 'cause I hear they give away babies like free iPods" without making it sound contrived, but Ellen Page is more than up to the task. Indeed, I dare say that Juno is pretty unimaginable without Page, an intelligent, quick-witted actress who crafts a character who's doused in irony but not as emotionally distanced as she fancies herself to be.
In a more run-of-the-mill cast, Page would have run away with the film, but happily her costars are able to keep up. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney make Juno's dad and stepmother exactly the parents the character deserves, able to humor her and empathize with her even when they don't quite understand her, and who have bottomless reserves of love, particularly the tough variety. Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman nail the dynamic of a childless yuppie couple whose life isn't as ideal as they try to convince others it is. Garner is able to project both the insecurity and the warmth needed to portray a woman who was born to be a mother but unable to bear children (sidenote: why does it always seem to be the generous, nurturing women who can't have kids?). And Bateman is especially good in a role that's usually relegated to comic relief- the husband who can't fully embrace the responsibilities of adulthood because he's too busy holding on to his dreams of youth. Finally, Michael Cera is a treasure. I don't know how much range the guy has beyond playing overwhelmed, but he's just so good at it (at the ripe old age of 19, no less) that I don't really care. He's just the right match for Page, just as his Paulie is the right match for Juno, although it takes them almost the whole movie to figure that out.
Had Juno been made 10 or 15 years ago, I suspect that the reception would have felt a little different. Yes, critics would have still almost uniformly praised the film, but instead of arriving as an awards-ready buzz magnet, it might have done decent business at big-city arthouses and then found an word-of-mouth audience on video. And frankly, that feels just about right for Juno. It's the kind of movie that people should be recommending to friends for its gentle good humor, one that would feel a lot more meaningful to people if they could feel like they discovered it themselves. Sadly, movies like that are rare anymore, in a media culture that predigests just about anything that's even remotely worthy of attention, but the good news is that it hardly hardly needs the hype to prop it up. Juno can stand pretty well on its own, thank you very much. Rating: 6 out of 10.