It’s amazing how frequently duels emerge between similar sounding films that get released over the course of a single year. Last year the big duel was between a pair of magician related films The Prestige and The Illusionist; most will agree that the critical and financial winner of that duel was The Prestige. Many may remember the asteroid duel of 1998 between Armageddon and Deep Impact, a duel that shows how many of these match ups are superficial; both films involved asteroids but ultimately were pretty different. This year the big coincidence matchup is between a pair of unwanted pregnancy comedies, the Judd Apatow comedy Knocked Up, from earlier this year and the new independent darling from Jason Reitman: Juno.
The film’s title character, Juno (Ellen Page), is a precocious sixteen year old girl who walks to the beat of her own drum. Juno and her platonic male friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), found themselves having sex once mostly out of boredom. This act of experimentation has resulted in Juno finding herself pregnant. Juno considers but ultimately rejects plans to get an abortion and tells her parents (played by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) about her condition. Her parents are not happy about the situation but manage to keep a snce of humor about it. Looking at al her options Juno begins to strongly consider giving her baby up for adoption and finds a pair of yuppies (played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) willing to take the child.
The success of Juno is mostly rooted in the likability of the characters, specifically Juno herself as played by Ellen Page. Juno is a unique character who’s easy-going attitude is the source of most of the film’s humor. Juno has a style all her own, she has above average taste in music and slasher films and also speaks with a vocabulary of invented slang which is always a pleasure to hear. She is a larger than life character, almost an Annie Hall for the 21st century, and like the Annie Hall character I suspect Juno’s style will be imitated over the next few years. Most of Juno’s charm derives from Ellen Page’s excellent performance that fills the character with humanity. The twenty year old actress inhabits the characteristics of a sixteen year old in a transformation reminiscent of Alison Lohman’s underappreciated turn in the 2003 Ridley Scott film Matchstick Men. More importantly, Page is able to deliver some highly stylized dialogue in a very organic and believable way.
The rest of this ensemble cast is also completely solid. Michael Cera has been having a great year with breakthrough performances in Superbad and this film. His character is not the film’s strongest, but Cera is almost perfect for the role. Another “Arrested Development” alumni featured here is Jason Bateman playing Mark Loring, the potential adoptive father of Juno’s baby. The character is a musician who composes advertising jingles but claims to have once opened for The Melvins. He gets into arguments with Juno over whether 1993 or 1977 was a better year for rock and roll (his arguments in favor of 1993 is of course correct, but she makes a good case for 1977). Jennifer Garner’s performance as Loring’s wife is probably the strongest of the film’s supporting characters. Garner adds a certain sadness to the role and does a lot with limited screen time. Also worth mentioning are J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s parents. Simmons, who is probably best known for his turn as a white supremacist prisoner named Vernon Schillinger in the HBO original series “Oz,” manages to make his role both gruff and caring at the same time. Allison Janney, playing Juno’s mother, should be given special credit for managing to make one scene involving and ultrasound work when it would have failed miserably in any other hands.
Diablo Cody, a first time screenwriter, has a real knack for writing funny dialogue that is quirky but not absurd. The film’s dialogue is one of its best assets and it would have been its biggest problem were it not so well written. One should not forget that this is a comedy and one that doesn’t disappoint. There are a lot of very funny moments here and they are all well deserved and naturalistic. The film is populated with likable, and multi facetted characters to grow and develop over the course of the film. By the films end none of the viewers initial impressions of any of the characters prove to hold up over the film’s duration. I’m going to avoid giving away the way these characters change over the course of the film, but I will simply say that this screenplay is full of surprises.
Superficially, Juno would seem to fit very well into the mold of independent comedies like Rushmore, Garden State, and Little Miss Sunshine. If the movie has any problem it is that it is occasionally a bit to conscious of its place in this movement. This is particularly notable in the film’s first fifteen minutes where the dialogue is a bit to sharp, the soundtrack is a bit too ironically hip, and the opening credit sequence is a bit too quirky for its own good. However, the film quickly abandons these indie conventions and like the Juno character, begins to forge its own identity. If this is anyone’s fault its Jason Reitman’s; this director’s last film, Thank You for Smoking, was also a little bit to conscious of its place as satire. There’s still room for improvement for is Jason Rietman’s skills as a director, but he’s delivered a hell of a sophomore effort. He’s definitely on my directors to watch list.
This small annoyance is hardly enough to have tainted my experience with Juno. This is a charming, lovable film, which is loaded with sheer likability. As for the inevitable comparisons with Knocked Up: I think it’s a non story. Knocked Up for adults” I’d object to this simplistic characterization, firstly because this underestimates the tastes of teenagers, secondly because Knocked Up deserves more than to be called “Juno for juviniles,” thirdly because the entire comparison is pointless. These films are every bit as different as Deep Impact and Armageddon were, and that shouldn’t be an insult to either party.
This Oscar season is going to be filled with dark, challenging films, and there’s nothing wrong at all with that. But cinemagoers deserve this highly enjoyable oasis in dark this holiday season.
**** out of four