Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"Juno" -- * * * 1/2

For better or worse, Jason Reitman's "Juno" is going to be the movie that makes teen pregnancy "cool," mark my words. Just watch, around the September thru November 2008 period, there'll be a major spike in births by underagers. Already being decreed "The next 'Little Miss Sunshine'" for months (we knew something had to be labeled as such before the year was up), I have to grudgingly admit that "Juno" lives up to its advance buzz. To label it as "Knocked Up" meets "Little Miss Sunshine" is lame, as well as obvious, but the labeling really fits; the film will likely be rapturously received by audiences that dug on either. However, "Juno" develops its own unique identity, and as one of the few offerings this season that's a genuine pleasure to watch, it'll likely reside in theaters all the way through the winter.

Leniently given a boundary-pushing PG-13 rating, "Juno" opens with 16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) learning of her pregnancy resulting from her one-time lovemaking session with best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) and telling us, "It started with a chair." Though she makes it to the Women Now clinic "to procure a hasty abortion," Juno ultimately decides to keep the baby, but give it up for adoption to a couple who needs/wants one. Deciding, based on an ad in the Pennysaver, on yuppie couple Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), the film chiefly chronicles Juno's relationship with the couple throughout her nine-month journey. Juno develops an increasingly intimate friendship with Mark (the two share a passion for Asian horror and classic rock), while her and Paulie take turns breaking each other's hearts, avoiding the fact that they each completely dig each other.

Director Reitman keeps the 90-minute film moving quickly, but not at the risk of sacrificing character moments. Making a very nice companion piece to his "Thank You for Smoking," "Juno" has a relentless snarky, irreverent tone (his keen visual wit is as smirk-inducing as the dialogue) that confirms that he is indeed one of the foreboding major comedy filmmakers. Even though here he's directing someone else's script-- "Smoking" was his own-- the two films have a very similar sensibility and Reitman has a style all his own. He also clearly has a way of wringing awesome performances out of all of his actors, and a particular knack for stylish, endearing opening credits.

It's tempting to re-spout the eminently quotable dialogue on display in Diablo Cody's deservedly hyped screenplay, but I'll try my best to keep it to to a minimum. I will say, in the first few minutes, Cody seems to be striving too hard for hipness that it borders on annoyance; One of the first lines of the movie is Juno yelling Napoleon-like at a dog, "Geez Banana, shut ya frickin' gob!" and later, a character asks, "Honest to blog?" But the movie quickly settles into a groove, balancing its startlingly funny dialogue with emotional honesty, not just a non-stop barrage of ornate clever-dom. Whether using the dialogue to subtly define characters (by the third time Paulie exclaims "Wizard," we can infer it means "Cool" but we're never told so) or allowing them to deliver riffs on the phrase "sexually active," the screenplay is really the star here, and is the rare beast that could possibly win an Oscar as well as become a part of the cultural vocabulary. Once "Juno" opens, I can guarantee you'll hear its dialogue quoted to irritating degrees, or due to its massive screening campaign, possibly even before then; I'm not even kidding, I already heard a bleach-blonde sorority girl wearing snow boots on my campus affectedly saying of boysenberry-flavored condoms, "They make his junk smell like pie."

However, all the film's positives would be for naught if it weren't equipped with just the right actress to play Juno, who the entire movie rests upon. After a remarkable, discomfiting turn in last year's "Hard Candy," Page delivers a true star-making performance here. Armed with protective layer of sarcasm, Juno is smart, caustic and quick-thinking, though more vulnerable then she lets on. Page greatly handles the emotional content that's asked of her, but she's largely required to be a vessel for Cody's fast, witty dialogue and delivering it so note-perfectly; it's impossible to imagine any other actress so embodying the character. She is so incredibly funny here, and will make every cool guy in the audience fall in love with Juno, even when she's being a pain in the ass. I don't really know any girls my age (let alone ones six years younger) who would name check The Stooges, Patti Smith, and The Runaways as their favorite bands, but Page makes us go along with the fact that maybe Juno is just cooler than most chicks around.

As the type of couple whose refrigerator is stocked full of Pellegrino and Vitamin Water, Garner and Bateman are surprisingly convincing as a couple, and each do wonders tackling opposing sides of the foreboding, parental lexicon. Garner doesn't get any "funny" dialogue to work with if I recall, but is asked to carry nearly all of the film's emotional content (are you really surprised? Pouty faces is practically her specialty) and does it with aplomb. As a woman who sees motherhood as her primary purpose in the world, but can't have her own children, she has the least "fun" role, but arguably the most difficult. Bateman isn't as sympathetic, but he gets some of the film's funniest lines (my favorite was one about "kickin' it old testament") while making Mark into a conflicted, complex guy that feels most like someone we've all met before; it's to his credit that Mark's scenes with Juno feel more like desperate yearning for his bygone youth than creepy pedo-infatuation.

As Paulie Bleeker, a.k.a. Bleeker, a.k.a. Bleek, Cera is terrific and monumentally charming. Equipped with a racecar bed and an affinity for orange tic-tacs, yet still somehow being regarded as one of the coolest guys in school, Paulie will only cement girls of all ages' against-the-grain love for Cera. He maintains his faux-naive delivery here, yet downplays his trademark awkwardness, and if you ask me, he's significantly better-utilized than he was in "Superbad," where there was barely room for him with all of Jonah Hill's non-stop shouting tirades. Sadly, us "Arrested Development" fans don't get a Michael-George Michael reunion, since Bateman and Cera share no scenes together; the closest we get it is a line where Paulie's mother mentions that "breakfast for supper" is his favorite meal ("What have I always said is the most important thing?").

Nonetheless, the true MVPs of the pitch-perfect supporting cast are J.K. Simmons (the lone returning champ from "Thank You for Smoking") and Allison Janney as Juno's affectionate dad and step-mom. Each actor has a way of delivering "funny" dialogue that work equally as jokes as well as convincing things their characters would actually say. As Juno's loving, grudgingly supportive father, Simmons displays a rarely-showcased warmth, and Janney gets equipped with both a wonderful first line ("Juno, did you by any chance barf in my urn?") and an applause-inviting scene where she tells off an ultrasound technician. There aren't many actors who could find the truth and humanity in lines like "I'm gonna punch that Bleeker kid in the weiner next time I see him," but these two are monumentally up to the challenge and they're two of my favorite performances of the year.

At the risk of sounding too-cool-for-school, "Juno" boasts what may be my second favorite soundtrack of the year (behind "Once," of course). While the credits announce "Songs by Kimya Dawson," the hipster-beloved songstress only makes up about half of the music. Though the fact that Dawson, who usually just annoys me, actually works remarkably well in context here is alone worthy of acclaim, the real selling point is the tracks in between. "All I Want Is You" by Barry Louis Polisar, Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes," Sonic Youth's cover of The Carpenters' "Superstar," Belle & Sebastian's "Expectations," and "A Well Respected Man" by Nick Binkley have all made their way onto my iPod.

The real question that prognosticators have been pondering about "Juno" is, sure, everyone loves it, but is it an Oscar movie? I don't really think so, but I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea. I'd love them to acknowledge comedy more, and for what it is (a very funny, clever, charming piece of work), "Juno" is nearly perfect. I'm still not entirely convinced older viewers will lock on to it as steadfastly as members of the YouTube generation, but anything could happen. While there are better movies this year worth nominating, I won't be bitching and moaning if "Juno" gets in. On the other hand, if it wins...

While it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that "Juno" will be a word-of-mouth hit and undoubtedly become a pop culture staple, the fact that it's pretty awesome flick seems to be getting drowned in the advance buzz. Its unrelenting cleverness may inevitably rub some the wrong way, but I think even potential nay-sayers will be willing to jump on board. With a terrific screenplay that never condescends to its audience or characters, and where every joke or one-liner feels organic to the proceedings (thanks largely to the performances and direction), "Juno" is pretty much irresistible.

"Juno" opens today in 7 theaters in New York and Los Angeles, expands to 40 theaters on December 14th, 200 theaters on December 21st, and opens on 1,000 screens nationwide on Christmas Day.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Actress (Ellen Page) and Best Original Screenplay (Diablo Cody) are 100% put-money-on-them locks, and if the film clicks as well with Academy votes as it will with "cooler" auds, Best Picture, Best Director (Jason Reitman) and Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Garner) are feasibly within grasp.


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