2007 // USA // Jason Reitman // December 26, 2007 // Theatrical Print
A - What to make of Juno? The second comedy this year about unplanned pregnancy, Juno aims for a far trickier target than does its fratboy cousin, Knocked Up. Judd Apatow's film was elevated by its perceptive and sensitive script, even as it coaxed forth conventional belly-laughs. Director Jason Reitman takes a riskier and altogether different track with Juno, plunging headfirst into a screenplay so densely packed with verbal acrobatics and hipster lingo that it risks unintentional self-parody. It might have, that is, if Diablo Cody's script hadn't also delivered such startling sucker-punches of genuine humanity, if the actors weren't one of the best comedic ensemble casts I've seen in years, and if Reitman hadn't brought it all together with such graceful efficiency and engrossing whimsy.
The comedy in Juno is of an unusual breed, more likely to elicit guffaws and gape-mouthed smiles of disbelief than hearty laughter. The dialogue comes very fast and brimming with puns and slang, forgoing realism for pure linguistic spectacle. To dub it "quirky" seems a woeful understatement and an abuse of the term. Juno's characters have neither the sedate quality of Wes Anderson's playthings nor the gawky nerd-chic of Napoleon Dynamite and its imitators. They are closer kin to Ghost World's Enid, although unlike Clowes' heroine, Juno MacGuff fortunately has a circle of friends and relatives who appreciate her and share her wry outlook. While Juno's dialogue is undeniably amusing to absorb, such self-aware, brainy cuteness might have grown irritating after an hour and a half. Fortunately, Juno has so much going for it that its sins of excess on this count recede, becoming just another facet of its remarkable personality.
In her biographical details, sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff is an improbable, even fantastical, creature. She possesses the intellect, wit, and tastes of a woman twice her age, declaring her adoration for the music of Patti Smith and the films of Dario Argento. She wields a hefty dose of prickly wit, but as a character she is ultimately so good-natured and industrious that it's a hard not to fall in love with her. Following a bored Saturday night that culminates in sex with her best friend, Paulie, Juno finds herself pregnant. Turned off by an impersonal, grubby abortion clinic, she elects to give the impending baby to a childless couple. Despite her fierce mind, Juno is still emotionally immature and woefully naive. She imagines handing over the child after nine months, and everything returning to normal afterwards.
Of course, nothing turns out as predicted, for Juno or the audience. It's so easy to get lost in the razzle-dazzle of Cody's dialogue that her original, moving take on this well-tread melodrama sneaks up on you. Indeed, she may be counting on this. For all its Vaudeville punchiness, the joys of Juno lie in the unconventional and powerful places its characters take us. Juno's parents are middle-class, middle-aged goofballs, but their family crisis reveals strength of character and experiential wisdom that Juno never anticipated. Vanessa and Mark, the wealthy couple that Juno chooses to parent her offspring, are initially utilized for humor—her via her yuppie perfectionism, him via his man-child misery. Yet perhaps more than any other characters, they travel along unexpected trajectories as the story unfolds. With the adoptive parents in the wings, the forthcoming infant is not a catastrophe for Juno and Paulie, but the fact of the pregnancy sets their relationship on a tipping point.
Reitman exhibits a smart, limber direction; as an example of comedic storytelling, Juno is essentially perfect. Nothing feels out of place, and every scene serves to move the narrative along at pace that feels simultaneously measured and completely natural. This is all too rare a thing in modern comedies, which often unwisely stretch the half-hour sitcom blueprint into a feature length film. Reitman employs a production design that is intensely textured and one degree off from naturalistic. There is enough realism to convince, but enough odd detail to captivate. Juno's home, for example, has a cluttered, lived-in quality, with minutiae that unobtrusively match her family's history and Midwestern character.
Much of Juno's appeal lies in its uniformly strong cast. Ellen Page, liberated from the moral thorns that studded Hard Candy, shines with playfulness and geek-girl sexuality as Juno. Given that she does it so well, Page could have confined her performance to ninety minutes of smirking sarcasm. Instead she infuses Juno with lively sparks and vulnerable teen angst that, while familiar, are utterly believable. As Paulie, Michael Cera brings the same sublime, muttering discomfort he showcased in Superbad, but with a bit more sweetness. Cera is skilled at conjuring the awkwardness and beauty of adolescence, but I'm nevertheless eager to see him develop further as a comedic actor. The list of engaging performances goes on an on: Olivia Thirlby as Juno's enthusiastic, loyal friend Leah; J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as the bewildered, protective father and stepmother; Jason Bateman as Mark, striking notes of childish aimlessness, college-boyfriend charm, and unseemly attraction; and a completely astonishing Jennifer Garner as Vanessa, who enters the film as a Stepford kill-joy and evolves into its most sympathetic character.
To me, it seems that the widespread critical fascination with Juno's quips and eccentric turns of phrase misses the mark. The snap and crackle of its funky wit is its most noticeable feature, but also its most trifling. Like the bountiful crop of freckles on the beautiful girl next door, Juno's sardonic sensibility might be distracting to some suitors. Good riddance, I say. Juno perfectly executes the parameters of a family comedy for the twenty-first century, and then transcends them. She's sweet, soft, and smart, and she'll still be your best friend in the morning.