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Frat Pack Tribute Movie Preview: Juno

Review

by Drew Hunt

Thirty minutes into Juno, and it looks like the movie and its heroine are both in serious danger of being smothered by their own knowingness. A 16-year-old bundle of sass in a pint-sized glass, Juno McGuff has responded to her unplanned pregnancy (thanks to her best friend and fellow geek Paulie Bleeker, played by Superbad's Michael Cera) with all the guff befitting her name. As written in the quick-wit blueprint that is Diablo Cody's debut script and performed by Ellen Page, Juno handles the unfortunate situations that become her with a string of preemptive verbal strikes and cutting one-liners, quips that must have looked like immaculate repartee on Cody's page but patter like someone who has been watching Ghost World and practicing Thora Birch's part in the mirror for hours. When she initially decides on abortion to cure her woes, she calls the planned parenthood clinic Women Now, because they "help women, now." But after calling to "procure a hasty abortion", and showing up at the clinic only to have a protester tell her that her "baby has fingernails", she decides to see the birth to term, and give her baby up for adoption; simultaneously, her quirky, trying-so-hard-it's-painful delivery quickly becomes tired, and one can't help but wonder how far the film will go in order to remind you that Juno is no ordinary 16-year-old.

However, the fact that abortion is mentioned--and that it arrives as Juno's primary option--marks director Jason Reitman's movie as a tough-minded comedic alternative to this summer's Knocked Up. And while it's certainly true that Cody's strong-woman themed is drastically different to the dude-centeric vision of Judd Apatow's crew (It has become customary for reviews of Juno to mention that Cody is a former stripper and phone-sex operator, which I believe makes her a neo-neo-neo-feminist. I, however, shall refrain from doing so) the women of Knocked Up are never as glib as Juno is in deciding to give her baby to yuppie couple Mark and Vanessa Lorgin (played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), who advertised their desire to adopt in the local PennySaver newspaper. This setup is as improbable as it is self-conciously clever, and the film's entire set-up (and, subsequently, the film the itself) wears exceptionally thin.

All of which is to say that I walked into Juno expecting to love it (anticipating the Arrested Development reunion that never came, as Cera and Bateman do not share a single scene), and halfway through was beginning to think that I, frankly, didn't much care for it. Yet, the film soldiers on, and eventually develops a gravity to it's gravidity, carried for a long stretch on the conviction of Page's performance. Even when her lines sound forced and false, the fear and uncertainty in her eyes is authentic and loveable. In an odd way, Juno's unlikely snarkyness is enjoyable, executed entirely by the skill and unexpected timing of Page. Humor can be a funny thing.

In the film, Juno is eventually faced with an unlikely decision, between two men who offer very different paths. Bateman plays the potential adoptive father as a case of, well, arrested development, a man who still pines for his rock and roll glory days and takes the impending birth even less seriously than Juno does. Then there's the bewildered, loyal Bleeker, yet another inspired Cera performance, this time with the nervous smile erased by decency and concern.

As the two eventually begin to show their true intentions (one's more insidious, the other's more genuine), the films flow slows and allows warmth and sincerity to seep in. This is where the film finds its footing, and veers toward the feel-good comedy it was touted to be. Juno eventually describes herself, albeit sarcastically, though not without its tone of need, as "out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level," and that confession rings in a third act that makes all the tough talk seem like a prelude to the discovery of real life. Juno, the girl and the movie, become wonderful when they admit how little they really know.

Is the film to smart for its own good? Absolutely. But it's also hilarious. Undoubtedly one of the funniest films of the year.

The ensemble cast is spot on, with each actor bringing in noteworthy efforts. J.K. Simmons, deftly playing Juno's father, is the films stalworth for genuine laughs, while Garner is a bit of a revelation in what might be the most affecting performance in the film. In the end, the story is as much hers as it is Juno's, and Garner's touching portrayal is one of the film's saving graces.

And although a bit disconcerting on the surface, Reitman's direction will go overlooked, but that's simply because he understands the script's intentions, tone, and characters so well (possibly even more than the screenwriter herself.) His sophomore effort is certainly not a stale one, and is a glaring improvement over the good-but-not-great Thank You For Smoking.

For a movie that starts out in such an underwhelming fashion, Juno keeps it's credibility by retaining the notion of heart, albeit a bruised one. The film emits laughs that come from deep within; someplace painful, yet filled with hope.

Netflix, Inc.