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Zettel Film Reviews » Juno – too cool for school, Hollywood cool

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Juno – too cool for school, Hollywood cool

I thought you put it on the banana

I thought you put it on the banana

Juno – Jason Reitman

Juno McGuff is up the duff. Dad, Mac MacGuff (J.K Simmons) and stepmom Bren McGuff (Allison Janney) are shocked but cool; as only parents in a cool Hollywood movie can be. At 16 Juno is already too cool for school. We know this because she rejects testosterone-driven jocks in favour of geeky, innocent but intelligent Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Paulie is the only character in the movie or the movie itself that meets the acid test of cool – if you think you are, you aren’t. Trouble is, not knowing you are is only a necessary not a sufficient condition for actually being cool: when Paulie, though likeable in a disarmingly Charlie Brown ‘good grief’ kind of way, thinks he isn’t cool – he’s right.

Welcome to the hottest coolest movie of the year according to American audiences. Jason Reitman’s film has mystifyingly, come up late on the Oscar rails, and attracted four of the premier nominations – Film, Leading Actress, Direction and Original Screenplay. And to mimic the distinctive dialogue style of the nominated best original screenplay (Diabolo Cody – 30) of the year – to me this dude Emperor has no clothes and is stark-bollock naked with his ‘junk swingin’’ for all to see. The alternative name for his ‘junk’ it seems is his ‘pork sword’. Which you choose is obviously a matter of taste. Though technically I think ‘junk’ is a collective noun for a part of a guy’s anatomy with a group of three possibly four elements of which the ‘pork sword’ is merely the most prominent member. If this makes you groan, save a bit of energy to respond to Juno’s ‘vag’ as in “I just thought I’d squirt the baby through my vag and then give it away.”

My only issue with language is aesthetic not moral. I don’t find any of this especially offensive. And 21 year-old Ellen Page’s rightly praised performance does carry off some of this scabrous dialogue well enough to make the ugly sound feisty and infuse a sense of street cred into the vulgar. She has great timing for a one-liner and builds up a kind of inner rhythmic pattern of speech that works well. She sort of ‘raps’ her lines. But despite an occasional gleam of wit and style, the writing too often lazily relies on the humorous effect of a cute 16-year old talking ‘dirty’ and ‘shock’ at young girls having, liking and talking graphically about sex. Wake up and smell the coffee folks – it ain’t new.

Clearly I’m not the market for this carefully, calculatingly positioned and pitched product. I’d like to think the 12 to 30-ish year olds it’s aimed at will see how thin and patronising it is. I have a hunch anyway that the box office success is driven more by middle-aged parents who feel this movie gives them the inside track on how their kids think, talk and feel. Like a dad who picks up a street word and then misuses it on every available occasion. Or does his Mick Jagger impersonation to Brown Sugar at every conceivable opportunity.

Juno’s unilateral decision to do it with Paulie, who is so nice his acquiescence is mere politeness, is certainly driven more by curiosity than lust. But this deeply knowing-beyond-her-years intelligent young woman we are asked to believe has misunderstood the school sex lessons and assumed contraception is affected by putting the condom on an actual banana. After a perfunctory visit to a women’s help clinic (of which more in a minute) she decides almost whimsically, against a termination, instead to find a deserving childless young couple to adopt Juno junior.

Enter the wealthy, teeth-clenchingly nice Lorings: Vanessa childless and desperate; and Mark whose smiling creepiness grows like mould. Accompanied by doting but resigned Dad Mac, Juno signs a legal adoption contract. Mark is a failed rock star turned jingle composer, secretly nursing the delusion of a second chance for feminine adulation. Precocious in music as in everything else, Juno shares with him the esoteric intimacies of ancient cult rock groups and gross-out, more-gore slasher movies. Juno is lovingly supported through her pregnancy by Bren and Mac. The delicious Allison Janney milks every drop of humour out of the sparse lines Diabolo gives her and J.K Simmons is a lovingly gruff and self-critical Dad.

When Mark eventually hits on her, Juno for the first time in her life is shocked, then when Mark says he’s leaving Vanessa thus screwing up the planned adoption, she becomes justifiably disgusted with adults. After a pregnancy whose most serious impact is to put a crimp in her social life, Juno gives birth; and Vanessa becomes a single Mom. Paulie, still dutifully asking Juno when it would be ok for him to breathe, doesn’t see the baby because “it doesn’t feel part of him”. And Juno passes her baby over with all the emotional conflict of giving away a favoured pair of jeans she’s grown out of. Then the young lovers hook up to make excruciatingly bad music together.

The sub-text to this apparently emotionally bland and shallow but linguistically spicy movie is disturbing. First the women’s centre Juno goes to is a laid-back parody of the real thing where concerned and committed men and women often risk their very lives to support the choice if that is their wish, for kids like Juno not to bring unwanted children into the world before they can even form an emotionally stable relationship. Going in, Juno is picketed by a single protestor, fellow student Su-Chin crying “children have a right to be borned” (sic) and clinches Juno’s decision against an abortion by telling her that her 12 week old ‘baby’ already has fingernails.

Add to this the fact that according to Diabolo, a pregnancy planned from the start to end in adoption, including actually handing the baby over, is an emotional breeze and the humour begins to turn a bit sour. The shallow representation of the emotional and social reality this movie purports to represent, is precisely it seems to me the one that is most acceptable to the majority of the American public. And giving the majority something easy to swallow never lost anyone any money – or Oscars.

If it’s simply a comedy – it just isn’t funny enough. If it’s meant in any way to be taken seriously, then I think it’s laughable in a very different sense. And that laughter rings hollow.

Great performance from Page though and its good moments are very good – though nearly all in the trailer. But if you want to see the real potential of this charismatic Canadian actress in a film both serious and disturbing, then get Hard Candy out on DVD. It’s horrific and that’s not really my thing, but it tries to get at something real and Page is simply mesmeric and terrifying.

(February 2008)

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