Same usual lack of depth as my mini-reviews only longer and less focused. Bonus!
Festival hype is an especially tricky barometer to gage as it’s based in a genuinely decent place; a want to promote something small and as yet unchampioned, usually with little regard for the backlash that’s sure to come once people are paying $11 to see a film at the mall. Being first out of the gate is always tricky and being first isolated from the rest of the world only clouds things further. After playing Toronto and Telluride last month, Juno, emerged as the year’s darling “indie” comedy, trumpeting the arrival of blogger cum stripper cum screenwriter Diablo Cody and a star-making performance from Ellen Page who's mostly known in the geek world for pretending to castrate Patrick Wilson in Hard Candy and running from the Juggernaut (bitch!) in X-Men 3. Even more telling, the film has been called this year’s Little Miss Sunshine, which personally carried as much excitement as something being hailed as this year’s Big Mac.
What a relief then that the hype is wrong. Or wait, does that make it right? Aside from sharing a distributor, Juno has nothing in common with Little Miss Sitcom. It’s a bold, honest, bracingly original film that balances acerbic wit and unfussy emotion better than any film since the heyday of James L. Brooks. The film actually works best as a companion piece (and I would argue, corrective) to this summer’s surprise hit Knocked Up, telling a similar story but from the point of view of the person who can’t walk away from their responsibility. What differentiates Juno, and ultimately makes it the far better film, is its willingness to explore the entire spectrum of anxiety found in being an unwed parent, even embracing the idea that simply creating life isn’t some biological gateway to becoming an inherently better person. The film refuses to engage in squishy sentimentality about the sanctity of life (if there’s an award for most abortion/miscarriage jokes in a film, Juno is the runaway winner), presenting an intelligent, clear-eyed and scathingly funny depiction of its main character’s predicament and the decisions she arrives at.
Of course the film isn’t all Planned Parenthood jokes. If there’s a central goal to Juno it’s to tear down the notion of what exactly constitutes family and how little the functional, nuclear gathering has to do with anything in the 21st Century. Page is beautifully paired opposite the great JK Simmons and Allison Janney as her father and step-mother respectively, in a dynamic is as refreshingly nurturing, yet unencumbered by bullshit as I’ve seen in ages. Simmons is gloriously oblivious yet true of heart even in his off moments while Janney is given an (admittedly by design) “you go girl/go fuck yourself” scene that would not only put Erin Brockovich to shame but could very well become a rally call for mothers and daughters everywhere.
Juno is truly egalitarian in spirit, embracing those it initially targets as disingenuous, slyly shifting our perceptions of its characters, specifically those played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. The film makes early, easy swipes at the class divide and Garner in particular comes across as a pinched yuppie gargoyle at the picture’s onset, yet once the film places these two characters in their respective boxes it proceeds to chip away revealing uncomfortably human places and fears and ultimately redemption. The film is so subtle in shifting the audience’s allegiances, the cumulative emotional impact, once it kicks in, is all the more unexpected and appreciated.
Juno was directed by Jason Reitman whose Thank You For Smoking was liked by many and loved by me. Juno is an even better film, building around the young director’s snickering sense of humor and gift for the visual non sequitur. The film’s direction doesn’t especially call attention to itself, yet it represents an important step in Reitman’s evolution as a filmmaker, striking a balance between sardonic and heart-tugging with the greatest of ease.
But in the end, the film’s success is credited to two women (appropriately): its star Page and its writer, Cody who, as the film progresses, become inseparable. Page cuts through Cody’s Chayefsky by way of the blogosphere dialogue with a buzz saw, never allowing the verbal dexterity of the character come across as overly amused with itself or posturing. Page plays the title character as wise beyond her years yet vulnerable with a sense of where she’s going but no idea how to get there. Cody meanwhile deserves all the credit in the world for not taking the easy path with this story, never wavering from its ideals or losing its spirit or voice. And what a voice. It’s too early to tell whether Ms. Cody will ever follow through on the promise of this film, but after only one feature the young writer (who for those who are interested, is a total sex-kitten knock-out in addition to being insanely talented) announces herself as one of the most unique talents currently working in film. And should she fail to ever match this level of success, we can all take comfort in knowing she’s created at least one gem. A
Lars and the Real Girl may forever be irrevocably linked to Juno as I watched them in immediate succession (a problem most people won’t have) which certainly does this film no service even if it does create an informative case of contrasts. While Juno is hyper-stylized—perhaps bordering on precious—in its telling, its emotions are grounded in an earthy, unmistakably genuine bedrock; its very irony protects it from growing treacly and when it does get genuinely heartfelt (and it does) it has the effect of a baby bird pecking through its hard outer shell. Lars and the Real Girl, by comparison, is firmly grounded in a plain-spoken, aesthetically sparse setting where people keep their emotions close to their vest and seem to be as impenetrable and still as the winter landscape that surrounds them (at times the film feels like a geographical cousin to Steel City). But emotionally the film’s a fraud, predicated on that fabled, affable Midwest temperament which in this instance, to quote Richard Roper (probably the first and last time I’ll ever do so), involves an entire small town “sublimating itself” to the whims of Ryan Gosling’s mumbling introvert. For a film that no doubt sees itself as generous and nurturing, I found it remarkably self-involved.
The film swaths itself in the protective blanket of being a fairy tale, a defense that’s rather en vogue at the moment (see TV’s “Pushing Daisies” which practically induces diabetic comas), yet the genre it most closely adheres to is the “therapy film” where we patiently (no pun) wait on a character to come to the emotional epiphany we’ve quietly been anticipating for about ninety minutes. The film is distressingly more Dr. Phil than Adam Rifkin, leaving aside any of the more provocative or obtuse kinks for what amounts to the story of a boy learning to say goodbye to his imaginary friend. The “character” of Bianca (which for those who can’t tell from the ads is one of those anatomically correct sex dolls that Stern used to have propped up in his studio) is not only accepted by the community in total and without exception, but actually becomes in demand and rather preoccupied with civic duties, inspiring jealousy in Lars (really this is the only interesting idea in the entire film). I’m probably in a real small minority in wanting to see the exploration of love between a man and an inanimate object, but it’s got to be a heck of a lot more engaging than treating the doll as a walking (er, sitting) metaphor for the character’s emotional paralysis to be cured away by the end of act three.
Part of the problem here may be Gosling himself who is suffocated by an impossible part, a predicament he surmounted in Half Nelson that only fueled his legend. It’s a mannered, mumbling Geoffrey Rush-like performance which doesn’t even begin to fill in the rather glaring character holes in the script. The film treats Lars as if he were Rain Man, a cuddly sick person to be protected, when in fact his behavior is flat out creepy and occasionally cruel.
Which is a shame as Gosling’s supporting cast is without exception pretty phenomenal. Collectively keyed into their surroundings and the speed of life where church and Sunday dinners are the most important part of the week, the cast is unshowy and quietly devastating. As the impetus behind the town’s Capra-esque level of self-delusion Emily Mortimer clings to the hope that through sheer and unwavering altruism she can liberate a man who’s too damaged to venture outside his front door. Also desperate to save Lars is Kelli Garner’s Margo, a mousy bundle of nerves and dashed hopes. I’ve never been much of a fan of Garner’s work in the past but her work here is devastating in only a handful of scenes, presenting someone every bit as damaged as Lars without the support system catering to her.
But the performer who walks away from Lars and the Real Girl demanding our attention is Paul Schneider, last seen in some of the more tiresome scenes of The Assassination of Jesse James, as Lars’ older brother and reluctant caretaker to Bianca. Putting on a master class of understatement and quiet desperation, Schneider plays a man who’s only recently come to believe he’s to blame for his brother’s dysfunction, a byproduct of his own youthful rebellion. Mortified by Lars’ behavior yet racked with the guilt that he may have created it, Schneider truly is his brother’s keeper. Only when he dances to the film’s incredulous tune does it ring true. B-