Saturday, December 8, 2007

I'd like to procure a hasty review of JUNO.

So I still have to write a London wrap-up, and I'm hoping to get to that this weekend, but right now, I am compelled to write about the movie I just saw. I want to write this review before the hype gets too big ...

JUNO Review:

- There are so many things that could have gone wrong with Juno, but I'm pretty much floored by how brilliantly this movie came together. There are those who are quickly going to sense an impending wave of hype and praise and therefore rush to jump on a backlash bandwagon. But I want to do the oppositte - I want to say that Juno is, in my estimation, one of the year's best, and a movie that radiates warmness and good humor. I know, it sounds strange to describe a movie that at first appears to be aching to be cool in such a way. But it's way too easy to simply dismiss Juno and rail on it for trying too hard. I think that's exactly the point - Juno is a movie ABOUT people who are trying too hard. One of my favorite lines in the movie is when the title character, so adorably played by Ellen Page, compliments her highschool sweetheart, played by Michael Cera. "You're so cool without even trying," she says. But then, he corrects her: "Actually, I try really hard."

The reason thaT Juno totally won me over by the time the credits rolled is that it's a movie that defied my expectations, and then defied them again and again. The movie begins in full-on cutting edge hipster mode, with Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson exchanging jive-sounding dialogue as stylized as anything that Tarantino ever put to page. Everything about the movie's opening, from its beat-perfect dialogue to its emo-simplistic animated intro to all the odd little details - like the fact that Juno calls up people using a hamburger phone (at least that's what she calls it) - are enjoyable and cool and all, but I'll admit, all of the quirk made me a little antsy for a second there. Eventually though, something truly magical happens - the movie gets turned on its head and all the quirk gives way to something that is as three dimensional and subtle as almost any movie I've ever seen. At first glance, these characters seem cartoonish, but that's only at first glance. The beauty of Juno is, without ever being obvious or preachy, it shifts and expands and allows its characters to grow and change and blossom.

The characters of Juno feel so alive in large part thanks to the absolutely phenomenal cast. Ellen Page is going to get a lot of hype for this movie, but it's well deserved. She freaking rocks as Juno, and it's by no means a one-note performance. Juno is hilarious, smart, endearing as hell, and yet not a caricature. In fact, as well-written as Michael Cera and Jonah Hill were in Superbad, Ellen Page, I hate to say, makes those characters look a little one-dimensional in comparison. Part of it is the wonderful script, part of it is the absolute level of investment that Page puts into the character - every little quirk and mannerism and offhanded expression contributes. And yet ... for all of her wit and impressive vocabulary, Juno as played by Page will make you laugh, cry, and be happy. That's quite an achievement.

Last year at this time, it was a non-stop lovefest for all of the great dames of Hollywood who were showing again why they were icons - Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, etc. In 2007, 20 year old Ellen Page, in flannel and t-shirts and ponytail, was easily the breakthrough actress of the year. In one fell swoop, I think I'm a fan for life. It's funny too, because just recently I was thinking how I couldn't think of many great female film roles from this year. Christina Ricci in Black Snake Moan, Tilda Swindon in Michael Clayton, Michelle Pfeifer in Stardust - those were a few of my favorites so far. But I have a feeling that come Oscar time I will be wholeheartedly rooting for Ms. Page as Best Actress - like I said, she simply rocks as Juno. And here's one more bigtime compliment from me - Juno (the character) reminded me, in all the right ways, of the much-missed Lindsay Weir - just as Juno (the movie) reminded me, in all the right ways, of the much-missed classic Freaks and Geeks. Stylistically, the two don't necessarily have a lot in common. But to be sure, all of the depth, humor, and poignancy of that great work is alive and well in Juno.

The rest of the cast is off-the-charts great. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner are really, maybe surprisingly, superb as a couple looking to adopt the teenaged Juno's baby-on-the-way. Of all the movie's characters, it's Bateman and Garner who really threw me for a loop. Without revealing anything, I was amazed at how the film created a first impression of the couple, then a second, and finally a third, leaving us amazed that we had ever looked at them as we originally did. Could we really have been that sympathetic and endeared towards Bateman, or that annoyed and critical of Garner? The brilliance of these characters is that it is, again, a very natural peeling back of the layers. These are consistent, fleshed-out characters and yet fluid and evolving. Individually, this is the best thing Bateman's done since Arrested Development, and, well, maybe the best thing Garner's ever done. Bateman does a great job at playing a guy who has seen ten or fifteen years pass him by without warning - he's a great juxstaposition to Juno. He's a grown man with the passions and dreams of a kid, she's a kid who talks and thinks, in many ways, like an adult. Meanwhile, Garner's character is someone who initially seems boring, but wins us over because in reality she's a lot more like Juno than we suspect - she has a strong sense of self and doesn't care what others think.

JK Simmons is fantastic as Juno's father. Again, I was totally impressed with how this character defied the cliche. At first you think oh, yeah, there's no way that this square old dad has anything to offer the uber-cool Juno in the way of sound parental advice. But almost as soon as he's introduced, Simmons reveals his character as yet another amazingly complex creation. Yet another character that made me laugh, made me sad, made me smile. A truly great turn for one of the great character actors.

Allison Janney is similarly awesome as Juno's stepmom. Yet again - I found myself hating her at first, and that was surely a deliberate ploy on the part of the film. But Janney is oh so human, like everyone else in the movie. The familial ties between Juno, her dad, and her stepmom are palpable. All the good, the bad, the ugly of family relationships is on display here, but the strength of that family concept ultimately wins you over and makes even initially unlikable characters ones you find yourself rooting for. For Janney's part - she has some hilarious moments, particularly one shining hospital scene in which she tells off a presumptuous nurse.

As for Michael Cera, he's been on one heck of a roll. Juno is yet another showcase for his talent, in a role where he's more George Michael Bluth than Superbad. Cera has awkward nerdiness and earnest sincerity down to an artform, and he makes it remarkably easy to buy into he and Juno as a likable and meant-to-be couple of teenagers in love. Despite the built-in hipster quirkiness, there's a realness to the two of them - afterall, isn't everyone pretty much quirky and awkward in high school?

With such a great cast (and I haven't even mentioned some of the more minor but equally standout supporting roles), it's amazing that so much attention has gone to Diablo Cody, the self-styled star-screenwriter-in-the-making whose unconventional background has thrust her into the spotlight. And there you have another reason why there will be the inevitable backlash towards Juno - people love to dogpile on anyone or anything hailed and hyped as the Next Big Thing. Well, whatever. Right now, I'm not convinced that she ISN'T the next big thing. This screenplay is legit, and it really is a winning combination of a tightly-structured plot, measuring it at a breezy length, with dialogue and character that both burts off the page and yet, as I've extolled here, will surely surprise with its depth and poignancy. What I love about this script is that, like many of the best scripts, there are BIG ideas boiling over beneath the surface. No one will call Juno an epic by any means, but what elevates it above similar teen fare is that there ARE a lot of powerful themes at play here, and not in that smug, forced manner that films like Garden State sometimes have. Juno to me felt genuine through and through, and without getting too pretentious there were things here that felt bigger than the characters, a feeling that this was a story as much about generations in America, the pop-culture-infused intelligence of Gen Y vs the squandered potential of Gen X, as anything else. Maybe that's me reading too much into things, but there's an openness to Juno that invites interpretation, and I really admire Cody for infusing her script with that rare quality. The fact that Juno manages to be quirky and hip yet still capture a kind of cultural zeitgeist is pretty commendable.

I also am just impressed with the script for its sense of humor and unique perspective. I'll admit, comedy from the female perspective is often a tough sell. Female perspective, fairly or not, has in many cases become synonomous with simply not that funny. Not the case here - Juno is really and truly a breath of fresh air - a movie that is so clearly told with a female voice, yet never feels watered-down or dumbed-down or sugar-coated for a female audience. On the contrary, the sensibilities of Juno were so refreshing precisely because it was so obviously not typical of Hollywood teen comedy. But being different would mean jack if the film never made me laugh. Juno though is genuinely funny - sometimes funny in a quick-n-easy kind of way, sometime clever-funny or quirky-funny, and sometimes, most rewardingly, it's funny in that deep belly-laugh kind of way that really has to be earned through great characters and emotional investment.

Also give credit to Jason Reitman, who is now two-for-two with last year's excellent Thank You For Smoking and now Juno. I really enjoyed the simple-yet-stylized look of the film, and the sensibility with which it was shot, in a way that really complimented Cody's script. I also have to mention the soundtrack, which I really enjoyed. I'm not usually a fan of these types of quirky indie-music soundtracks, but each track here was pretty infectious and well-selected. It's a soundtrack I could actually see myself revisiting in the future on its own merits.

I think Juno is a movie that most people will approach with a bit of trepidation. There's now a built-in hype factor, and I get that people are becoming wary of these movies that are prematurely praised as generational touchstones. I know I usually hate that kind of thing, and for the first few minutes of Juno, I was worried that this might be a film that was merely solid but not the truly special movie that some had claimed. But soon enough, the film had zipped by and completely won me over. You may or may not be similarly taken by it, but for me things eventually 100% clicked. Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, JK Simmons and Alison Janney all pop, particularly Page for whom this is undoubtedly a breakthrough performance, maybe THE breakthrough performance of the year. Most of all though, Juno left me with a great feeling that I had just spent time with characters I had quickly grown fond of, in a world I wanted to immediately revisit, with a story that got to me as comedy, as a love story, as a character study, as a slice of life. Not for the cynical, not for the haters ... but for me, Juno was aces.

My Grade: A

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