Juno, Dir. Jason Reitman, Now Playing
It isn’t entirely director Jason Reitman’s fault that Juno is the most overrated film of 2007. It could be that Reitman is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wes Anderson’s recent success with quirky ensemble casts and indie-rock soundtracks seems inescapable. But granting Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody that much credit would be an honor undeserved. Juno is another in a long line of pandering, derivative, indecisive Hollywood films that parade themselves under the guise of indie-cred.
On the surface, Juno presents itself as a teenagers’ version of the summer blockbuster Knocked Up. Ellen Page plays 16 year old Juno Maguff, recently knocked up herself by best friend and childhood sweet-heart, Paulie Bleeker, played by Michael Cera. Page broke through with 2006’s Hard Candy, a film in which her teenage character took no prisoners and showed a range of emotion consistent with adolescence. In that film, her character rages, rampages, feels remorse and occasionally pauses for self reflection. But Diablo Cody conspicuously over-writes Juno, and Page never has a chance to transcend her one dimensional character.
Recent American films such as Brick or No Country for Old Men show that hyper-stylized screenplays can work to produce compelling, multifaceted characters. In those films, the dialogue works alongside the narrative structure as another stylistic device. Diablo Cody tries to utilize acerbic wit and punchy one-liners to characterize her teenagers as angst ridden, but her labored sense of comedy works against the characters by rendering them one-dimensional stereotypes. Even the most annoying teenager has a better sense of self than those Cody writes. Her notion of dialogue is more hyperbolic than grand. Unlike Brick or No Country, Juno presents itself as a realistic film rather than as an homage or fable. It is precisely because of this supposed relatability that Juno’s dialogue fails. The characters aren’t relatable because real people don’t talk like that. It isn’t called dialogue for no reason. If real people talked like this, I would never leave the house.
Many critics compare Cody to a young Quentin Tarantino. Like Tarantino, Cody attempts to render playfulness between her characters through pop culture references. Teens don’t have the time or the energy to talk the way Cody thinks they do. Her screenplay is actually worse than the more innocuous teen fluff because it takes itself so seriously. Tarantino’s characters are labors of love. They come from his nerdy appreciation of b-horror movies, Hong Kong action and blaxpoitation, among other sources. Cody’s characters could have jumped right off the pages of The National Enquirer. As such, her words sound about as genuine and interesting as her cringe-worthy stage name (her real name is Brook Hunt, which probably would have suited Tarantino just fine).
Despite all this, Juno isn’t entirely without merit. Deciding that abortion isn’t the right option, Juno decides to carry the baby to term and give it to an adoptive family who can properly provide for it. Sounds logical, right? For once the too-smart-for-her-britches Juno decides to be realistic? If only we were so lucky. Juno finds the perfect couple in a penny-saver ad. That couple, played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, initially comes off as the one dimensional epitome of ’80s yuppies, a Mike Huckabee ad waiting to set the moral compass for America. But then something happens. For once, she resists her pension for pop-witticisms. Despite all reason that would say otherwise, Jennifer Garner is actually quite good. Cody writes her and Bateman’s characters with the right amount of sympathy and understanding. And for a minute the jaded-ness I felt at the film’s beginning slowly faded. Things seem to be working out as they should, and the precious dialogue has been kept to a minimum.
And then that damned ending. Happy couple Juno and Paulie Bleeker sit in front of a quaint suburban house. They lean across a sidewalk and kiss, and then play a cute little indie song on their darling little guitars. Like the rest of the film, that scene is tedious. It made me angry. I felt duped by Cody and Reitman because, for a minute, I actually liked this movie. Cody showed some potential with the supporting characters, but ultimately even they became paper thin clichés of what suburban life is all about. If Cody infused her writing with even a smidgeon of irony the entire screenplay would benefit from a fresher perspective. As it is, this film is a forgettable teen dramedy that will one day look dated and uninspired.
There’s something harrowing about the new pop aesthetic of American indies. Why is it that a film like Juno garners such praise and box office returns? Most of my dislike for Juno comes in hindsight, for it represents not only the worst trends in independent American filmmaking but also the most regrettable traits of our society in general. When did eccentric (but always likeable!) characters and indie-rock soundtracks take over that which is independent from the mainstream? I can’t help but wonder if Juno benefits mostly because the studio markets it as an indie film rather than as a Hollywood film. All of its elements reek of the Hollywood studio system, from the pandering happy ending to the glossy way it deals with important issues such as abortion and teen pregnancy. In a generation when Britney Spears somehow retains custody of her children and teenage pregnancy remains endemic to the United States, Cody’s screenplays makes light of an important issue rather than illuminating it.
Jason Ousler writes on film and culture.