Saturday, October 29, 2011


U.S.A. • 2007 • directed by Jason Reitman • 96 minutes • Mandate Pictures / Fox Searchlight

Juno, which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, is about a pregnant 16-year-old-girl. It is not a screwball comedy, and it does not take place in an abstract movie-world. It means to take place in something like the real world, and the dressing seems to have worked for, well, 93 percent of the top critics on, for one. I myself have never been pregnant, nor have I dealt with a teen pregnancy, but I imagine it is nowhere near the walk in the park that screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman make it out to be, no matter your economic or cultural status.

Culture, it turns out, is one thing Juno MacGuff, played by the admirable Ellen Page, has plenty of. In this teenager’s acerbic, overwrought, and non-stop stream of hipster slang, she name-drops Iggy Pop and Dario Argento, and listens to The Moldy Peaches, who before this movie you had to be sad and underground to know about. She sports the walk and talk of a 16-year-old,
Empire Records, Rolling Stone magazine, Ghost World, and the entire 1970s all rolled into one. Either Juno is the most effortlessly witty fictional character since Falstaff, or the 29-year-old Cody has some serious insecurity about her own hipness.

Sample dialogue, from the scene in which Juno finds out she is pregnant from a kit in a convenience store:

Clerk: “This is your third test today, Mama Bear. Your eggo is preggo, no doubt about it. So what's the prognosis, Fertile Myrtle?

Juno: “Silencio, old man! It's not seasoned yet. Nope... There it is. The little pink plus sign is so unholy.”

Clerk: “That ain't no Etch-A-Sketch. This is one doodle that can't be un-did, Homeskillet.”

NO ONE TALKS LIKE THIS. The silent hypothesis put forth by this movie, and by every disaster adventure up through this month’s Cloverfield, is that even in the midst of great chaos and trauma, we can always find the time to be witty. When Juno informs her best friend, the shocked reply is “Honest to blog? You’re pregnant?” In the real world, I think such news is typically met with fewer buzzwords and more swearing.

Juno, its penchant for selling out underdog artists and genuine kitsch while promoting its own trendiness notwithstanding, gets better as it goes along. Cody should certainly be applauded for developing her supporting characters into semblances of real people, including Juno’s father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmom (Allison Janney), and the yuppie would-be adoptive parents of her baby (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner). If the script essentially drowns in its own put-on quirkiness, it is almost saved by its genuinely endearing characters. Almost.

Particularly good are Arrested Development’s Bateman as the not-so-sure-about-this adoptive father, and the radiant Janney as Juno’s patient, fuddy-duddy stepmom––but the screenplay doesn’t give these characters anywhere to go. At a point things seem about to go into dark and uncharted territory, but the movie sidesteps the deep end of the pool and just splashes more pop references our way. Patti Smith! “The Blair Witch Project”! Fender guitars!

There is a terrific film lurking within Juno. It keeps Juno’s quirkiness, its heart, and its characters, and the only difference is––it doesn’t have any pregnancy. Juno as is isn’t really concerned with the pain, magic, or awe of pregnancy anyway. The baby is only a gimmick, on which Cody has hung a charming but well-worn coming-of-age story. Juno’s name is MacGuff, and in her is the MacGuffin, the device Hitchcock adored which could be anything whatsoever so long as it propelled a movie’s plot. The only problem is that Juno’s MacGuffin is a human being, and while Juno rides her red retro bike over to her friend’s house to play music you only wish you were hip enough to be into, her accidental child will grow up wondering who its mother was.

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