A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #8

 

 

 

Rank: # 1

 

JUNO jjjj

2007, R, 91 mins.

Juno MacGuff: Ellen Page / Paulie Bleeker: Michael Cera / Vanessa Loring: Jennifer Garner / Mark Loring: Jason Bateman / Bren MacGuff: Allison Janney / Mac MacGuff: J.K. Simmons

Directed by Jason Reitman / Written by Diablo Cody.

"I'm just gonna go ahead an nip this thing in the but.  Cuz you know, they say pregnancy often leads to, you know...infants."

- Ellen Page in 'JUNO'

 

Like a bright, candy colored, and flavorful Tic Tac, JUNO is a most refreshing breath of air.  I donít like to engage in wild and unabashed hyperbole in my reviews, but after watching the film I find it very difficult not to describe it as one of the most perfectly executed and wholeheartedly satisfying filmgoing experiences that Iíve had in a long time.   This is the type of movie that you want to grab, give a heartfelt hug, and race outside of the theatre and seek out people you care about so that you can share it with them.

 

The film opened to great word-of-mouth when it had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September of 2007 and then went to Toronto, where it became a small sensation.  And for good reason: There is not one phony, contrived, wrongly sentimental, predictable, or false second in this film.  It contains what has to be one of the sharpest, smartest, and most perceptively written screenplays of any recent American comedy and a towering-above-all-others performance by Ellen Page, who seems destined for great things...like walking up to an Academy Awards  podium.

People have been talking about this Maritime-born Canadian actress in this film, which is already generating huge Oscar buzz.  Many may remember her from her brief stint playing Kitty Pryde in the last X-MEN film, but her true breakout performance was in last yearís shockingly tense HARD CANDY, where she played a 14-year-old girl that used her intelligence and tenacity to capture a pedophile and subsequently tied him up, tortured him, and threatened to castrate him.  The character in that film was easily one of the most difficult and polarizing of the year, but Page demonstrated a confidence, poise, and maturity that actors twice her age canít muster.  I called her my breakout star of 2006 for that film.  JUNO all but solidifies her status with the acting elite.  Both Page and another marvelous and young up-and-coming actor, Ryan Gosling, are starting to seriously reveal how the finest new actors are coming from the Great White North. 

She was on David Letterman the other night.  Whatís kind of astonishing about her is that she is such an articulate, sharp witted, pretty, and astute 20-year-old.  If there is a character that is as flawlessly cast as any, then Juno has to be one.  Page is able to effectively and convincing play a lot younger than she is (Juno is 16-years-old in the film), and is easily able to relay this characterís incredibly verbose, intelligent, acerbic tongued, adorable, and confident personality while, most importantly, her insecurities and faults.  Most screen comedies donít have the time to present its lead character in this broad of a spectrum and instead try to pass them off in simplistic strokes.  If anything, itís the combination of Pageís hilarious and touching performance and Diabloís Codyís brilliantly dry, literate, and engaging screenplay that makes JUNO one of the best American comedies Iíve seen in awhile.

If Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Woody Allen and John Hughes all teamed up and contributed snippets to a script, then JUNO would be the result.  Whatís astounding about the screenplay by Cody (an amazing story in its own right; she was a stripper turned screenwriter) is how real the words feel coming out of the actorís mouths.  She is incredibly shrewd about nailing the idiosyncrasies of everyday speech: Her characters in JUNO engage in scene after scene of dialogue exchanges that are colorful, pop cultured referenced, and emotionally frank and to-the-point.  There is a joyous lack of weighty pontificating in the ways the characters talk to one another, and Juno in particular is kind of a lyrically cocky and sarcastic teen that enunciates in a dry, Generation X-er slacker talk that has a rhythm and odd poetry about it.  Itís also wickedly funny.  When her friend asks her if she is sure that she is pregnant or if itís just a "food baby," Juno responds, "This is not a food baby, all right? I've taken like three pregnancy tests and I am for shizz up the spout."  The film is ripe with great banter like that, and Page and Cody turn Juno into one of the most inspired creations on the silver screen in many a moon.

"It all started with a chair" Juno explains in the filmís voice-over at the beginning of the film.  She has made one of the hastiest decisions of her life by having sex with her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (played by another great young actor, Michael Cera, more on him later) in the recliner of her parentís basement.  Juno is your average teenage girl: She has a huge love of gross-out horror films and punk music (she adores Patti Smith, Iggy and the Stooges, and The Runaways), plays a Harmony guitar in a band with Bleeker, and - like most other adolescents - sheís a smart ass, but in her case sheís a very well spoken and...well...smart smart ass.  However, her largest fault is also her greatest strength: She thinks sheís as wise and all-knowing as the adult figures that populate and surround her world, which makes it painfully difficult for her to take any real advice from anyone over 30.  This, of course, only frustrates her attempts in the film to have one simple question answered for her: Can two people who love each other spend an eternity together?  How could she know the answer herself.  At one point she pitifully states, "I donít know who I am."

As Junoís once virginal lover and best friend, Bleeker is a interesting foil to her.  Whereas sheís rambunctious and boisterous, heís shy and timid.  Heís a pasty-white skinned, skinny Jewish track runner that seems to be, in every scene of the film, wearing gold track shorts (which Juno hilariously discusses are designed to show a boyís "junk" flailing away as he runs).  He also is addicted to eating Tic Tacs with the compulsion of a heroin junky.  Bleeker loves Juno, despite all of her faults, but Juno thinks that his love has been precipitated by their fling in a recliner. 

Of course, Juno tells Bleeker the news, which horrifies him.  She then tells her father (played in great performance by J.K. Simmons) and her step-mom of ten years (the equally fine Allison Janney).  The great thing about the film is that the parents are not mournfully reduced to uncaring and falsely ignorant stooges in Junoís life that has punctuated too many dumb teen comedies in the past.  These parents are wiser and perhaps smarter than Juno, and they also are just as acid-tongued.  When Juno leaves the room the step-mom tells dad, "You know it was not his idea," to which dad nods in scathing agreement.  He then adds, with great amusement, "The next time I see that Bleeker kid, Iím gonna punch him in the wiener."

Juno was thinking of an abortion, but a bad trip to the abortion clinic turned her off (maybe it had something to do with the receptionist, who looked like a glam rocker and advised Juno to take some condoms thatíll make her boyfriendís junk smell nice).  She instead takes the advice of her other best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby, very funny): They look at the local penny saver ad and see a listing for a perfect couple that wants to adopt (Juno hilariously calls it the "Desperately Seeking Spawn" section of the paper).

The film then introduces the next two surprisingly well developed characters.  We meet mommy and daddy wannabes Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman).  Juno and father go to visit the couple, who live an upper class, yuppie lifestyle a million miles removed from Junoís home.  This whole scene is the filmís funniest.  Juno meets the couple and their lawyer, which befuddles Juno a bit.  She states, "Can't we just like kick this old school.  You know, like I stick the baby in a basket, send it your way, like Moses and the reeds?"  Her dad comes to her defense, with another of the filmís great zingers. "Junebug has a wonderful sense of humor.  Just one of her other genetic gifts."

The young couple look ideal to adopt Junoís baby, at least she thinks so.  Vanessa is revealed to be a bit neurotic and obsessive: itís her personal mission in life to have a baby, and her husband needs to be along for the ride.  Mark is revealed to be a sad figure in the film: Heís a failed musician that now writes songs for commercials, has little in common with the possessive and domineering Vanessa, and he resents how she subverts his deep passions, like music, collecting comic books, and watching classic horror movies.   He is 40ish, but lives in a bubble of adolescent hobbies and interests.  Of course, his loves help attract Juno to the possibility that he will he a great dad for her unborn baby.  If he were 15 years younger, he could have been the love of her life.  The two then develop a budding relationship, but itís never developed into something predictably tawdry or sick, especially when considering their vast age difference.  Their mutual admiration for one another helps assist their self awareness of their place in life.

Thatís the subtle genius of JUNO: It never condescends with the material, nor does it develop certain characters and leave others degenerate into stereotypes and monotonous clichťs.  Juno, of course, is of central importance, but the other characters are given equal weight.  Michael Cera plays timid and socially awkward better than just about anyone (which he displayed well in SUPERBAD), and here he plays a sweet, sincere, and caring jock that genuinely loves Juno, but he just has to open her eyes up to reciprocating the love back. 

Junoís parents are thankless creations.  Other witless scripts would have made them cruel and unsympathetic cretins to Junoís plight, but they too, like Bleeker, come across as empathetic and naturally caring individuals.  Allison Janney has the best standout moment in the film when she comes to Junoís defense against an ignorant ultra sound technician who indirectly comments on Junoís lack of skills and insight with becoming a new parent.  J.K. Simmons also manages to effortlessly convey a deep love and understanding for his daughter while simultaneously having regrets for her situation.  His comic timing and delivery is so impeccable; it helps to subvert the pain and concern he has for her.

The trickiest characters in the film are the WASP couple.  Vanessa, like other characters in the film, could have been presented as a routine, self-obsessed, and cruel antagonist to Juno, but she is typified as a flawed woman of deep passions and yearnings (look at the way Garner plays a crucial scene in a shopping mall when she gets to feel the kicking of her future baby; she avoids playing up to what could have been a cruel, upper class bitch and instead gives her character added dimension).  Jason Bateman arguably gives the filmís toughest and most effectively low key performance in the sense that he has to let out all of his insecurities and his growing admiration and fondness for Juno without coming across as a lecherous creep.  The manner with which Bateman underscores emotional moments with a soft spoken edge is inspired. 

JUNO was directed by Jason Reitmen (son of Ivan), whose previous film, THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING, was one of the most calculating and well conceived satires of 2006.  His direction in JUNO is simple and without flash (with the exception of a nifty and trippy opening title card sequence); he allows the performers to shine and grab the spotlight.  No more is this evident than with the way the film ends on a wonderfully realized moment that perfectly encapsulates the enjoyment, freedom, and poignancy of young adolescent friendship and love.  It also evocatively and touchingly uses The Moldy Peaches song "Anyone Else But You."  

That scene is perfect.  Like the rest of this movie.

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