As if there hasn’t been enough hype, let me add some more to the Juno maelstrom. For months, the pundits have blessed this movie as the hipster’s hit of the holiday-film season and anointed screenwriter Diablo Cody as estrogen’s answer to Judd Apatow. We’ve been told that the former-stripper-turned-City Pages-bloggist-now-bon-vivant is one of the “Fifty Smartest People in Hollywood” and that she’s a slam-dunk Oscar nominee.
Frankly, I’ve heard enough.
The self-perpetuating cycle of marketing hype that passes as entertainment journalism these days is great for stoking opening weekend box office, but it also raises obscenely high expectations for films that so rarely live up to them.
Here’s the shocking news, though: Juno is actually a really good movie. Smart. Funny. Memorable. The millennials may have found their John Hughes in Diablo Cody, and if saying that makes me yet another gasbag contributing to this media super-circus, so be it.
First, the movie. Our sixteen-year-old protagonist is Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) who experiments one night with best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), becomes pregnant, and decides to give the baby up for adoption to a childless St. Cloud couple into whose well-manicured life she brings a disarming frankness.
Adoptive-mom-to-be Vanessa, played by a pinched-looking Jennifer Garner, is a career woman who has had an adoption fall through before and doesn’t know how to react when Juno tells her she wants to “kick this old school” and have a closed adoption. Her husband, Mark (Jason Bateman), composes TV jingles and seems more interested in Juno than the baby she will bring into their lives. His self-satisfied smile and easy rapport with Juno send conflicting messages: Is he test-driving fatherhood or looking for a break from his marriage?
Juno’s supporting players don’t stray far from the coming-of-age template: the kooky, advice-giving gal pal; the dorky best friend who is really a soul mate; the un-hip parents who actually do get it. Nearly every character except, appropriately, bland Mark and Vanessa, speaks in an elaborate sort of quick-witted, pop-culture-infused shorthand that some twit will undoubtedly coin “Diabloesque.” Even Juno’s blue-collar dad, played with crackerjack timing by J.K. Simmons, delivers his share of choice bons mots. “Hey, big-puffy-coat-version-of-Junebug,” he greets his daughter late in her pregnancy. With the WGA strike now well into its sixth week, there’s great satisfaction in watching a film that is nothing if not a showcase for the weird and wonderful way Cody puts together words.
Juno is director Jason Reitman’s sophomore follow-up to Thank You For Smoking, and he once again has the good sense to cast the best actor as his lead, not necessarily the most marketable one. Ellen Page (heretofore most memorable for torturing poor Patrick Wilson in Hard Candy) brings a brainy individuality to Juno’s motormouth insecurity. She’s a less cynical version of Thora Birch’s geek-cool Enid in Ghost World. When Juno’s sass turns sweet in the film’s finely rendered third act, the tone shift works in large part because we can spot Page’s vulnerability from the start.
Cera is also wonderful as Juno’s maybe-boyfriend, a gangly kid who runs track and is trapped in that awkward space between childhood and adolescence. His endearing self-consciousness may not come from the Stella Adler playbook, but it’s arguably a more valuable commodity for a young screen actor these days.
Self-consciousness is decidedly not an issue for Diablo Cody, who bounded out onto the Walker stage for last night’s post-show Q&A, ditched the Eames chairs arranged for an interview with film curator Sheryl Mousley, and declared, “You can’t keep me in a chair.”
Fidgety and clearly in press-junket mode, Cody flirtatiously dismissed Mousley’s attempts to discuss the movie (“You want a kiss, don’t you?”) and segued directly to answering audience questions with a glibness that I suspect is going to wear a little thin by the time the Juno Oscar campaign really kicks into gear. (The Golden Globes delivered Cody a nomination yesterday, so consider the campaign well under way.)
Firing off suggestive one-liners (“I never had that fear—teen pregnancy. I double-bagged it”), name-dropping her Hollywood pals (Spielberg), and discussing what she considers off-limits (uh, nothing), Cody can come across as just another player in the Juno hype machine. We don’t expect (or want) someone so new to the game to be so practiced at it. And yet, with Cody that is what you get. Forget the hype, people. See the movie.