starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman
screenplay by Diablo Cody
directed by Jason Reitman
by Walter Chaw Brutally overwritten, smug, and self-indulgent to no discernible point, Jason Reitman's disappointing Juno is an unfortunate attempt to marry Judd Apatow's sleazy morality plays with a Kevin Smith pop-cultural gabber--the result being a ventriloquism tract in which virgin screenwriter (formerly blogger) Diablo Cody crams so many unlikely gluts of verbiage into so many sterile, undeveloped characters that the whole production is the ultimate act of masturbatory puppetry. The movie would be twice as funny with half as many wisecracks--it's so stuffed that there are long moments of zero interplay as one person or another acts as mute sounding board to whomever's reeling off a Dennis Miller-ism. Red-flag time when a film acts as both main attraction and audience. Ellen Page stars as the titular Juno McGuff, a Soupy Sales-referencing sixteen-year-old who finds herself pregnant by her nebbish boyfriend, Bleeker (Michael Cera). Exactly: What 16-year-old references Soupy Sales? What 66-year-old? Look to something like Heathers for how to write absurdist dialogue--that film along with Clerks the chief antecedents for Juno, which isn't as good as either because it wears its hipster cred like a chip on its shoulder. It's also not very good because even though it's about teen pregnancy, abortion, and adoption, it's about nothing so much as quirky teen romance, revealing itself to be inclined towards mining laughter from dorkiness and thus allaying itself, too (and in the worst possible way), with Napoleon Dynamite.
Juno's trip to an abortion clinic (preceded by "The Office"'s Rainn Wilson demonstrating in a brief cameo how limited he is as a personality) is punctuated by lone protestor Su Chin (Valerie Tian) proclaiming, in high-yella' style, "Your baby wants to be borned," before Juno relates a monolingual anecdote and proceeds on into the next non sequitur where someone else talks just like Diablo Cody writes. Page is a star, no question (the only reason you don't walk is because she patches a lot of holes), but Juno is best at revealing the limitations of folks like Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, the perfect yuppie couple to whom Juno decides to bequeath her spawn--the one tasked with wearing Soundgarden T-shirts and pining for his days opening for The Melvins, the other asked mainly to be the hysterical, barren woman, ovulating like a chicken and resembling that Mo Collins character from "MADtv" who, in lieu of children, collects Precious Moments figurines. Though Bateman is wonderful matched with the right material ("Arrested Development"), he's incapable of breathing depth into a plot device. Too much of Juno is similarly straitjacketed: straight man and punchline, Punch and Juno. Consider a moment during an ultrasound with the great Allison Janney (as Juno's stepmom) upbraiding the sonar tech for having an opinion on Juno's soundness as a mother that plays just like a match to a straw man. It's inorganic and, in this situation, embarrassing. Forced to watch Juno a second time under circumstances I prefer not to confess, I found myself turning away in revulsion at best.
Juno finds its best moments between Page and Cera (another "Arrested Development" alum). Credit Cera's understatement and the sneaking suspicion that his character was also overwritten, but pruned by a guy whose wisdom about the limits of his abilities makes up for his general lack of range. Cera delivers the one natural-seeming performance in the picture, the one that conveys legitimate exasperation for mothers who call him "puppy" and girlfriends who talk on hamburger phones and put abandoned living-room sets on his lawn as some sort of shrine (like the film itself) to fashionable quirk. Despite its aspirations to immortality in the coining of innumerable catchphrases, Juno's pleasures are fleeting. You can't spend this much time being too cool for school and earn a sentimental rimshot--it's the boy who cried "human." The picture's dated already in the way that things trying this hard to be hip are always perceived, correctly, to be the old guy at the college bar--looking to pick up whiffs of some imagined former glory by assuming the hipster leather of big topics and shock-pronouncements. Cunt, faggot, nigger, the Holocaust, Captain Kangaroo, decoder rings, "Gilligan's Island", and a Milton Berle cross-dressing joke--boy, that's actually kind of easy. All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up. Originally published: December 7, 2007.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.