Movie News & Reviews

Cast of Juno superb, but dialogue not so great

Egads, movies about the counterculture.

Wait, you were expecting more on that thought? Damn it, I'm not somekind of thinking-machine. I, too, prefer to eat tortilla chips on thecouch until I become unconscious rather than working out just what itis about movies like "Juno" with alternative or hipstercharacters--basically anyone "cool" between 15-35--that tends to makethem so very, very hard to be any good.

It's probably got something to do with that slippery paradox where assoon as you start trying to be cool you immediately becomeinsufferable. Like, if you've got a character who ostentatiouslyloves ironic but earnest lo-fi rock where the singer sounds halfdrunk, or who gets excited over crummy '80s junk like "He-Man" for thevery reason that it was never any good--automatically uncool. Evenliking classic punk's lame if you're making a big deal about it.

I imagine the people who made that stuff cool in the first place nolonger need to talk about it much at all, let alone constantly flauntit. So when you use that stuff as a shorthand for why your charactersare hip, it comes out all false: these movieland people aren't theones off doing their own thing, they're imitations, followers taggingalong with a cultural fad that's already played itself out.Characters who show some heart to go with their unassailable tastehelps a lot, but sometimes a movie's so deep in its ownself-congratulatory style it can't ever claw its way back out.

In "Juno," Ellen Page has a problem: she's pregnant, she's 16 yearsold, and the father, fellow student Michael Cera, isn't any more readyto deal with it than she is. When she's unable to go through with anabortion, she decides to carry it through and then give it up foradoption.

Prospective adopters Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner seem likethey'll make excellent parents--nice suburban home, he makes plenty ofmoney, she's enthused to the gills about being a mother--and as thedelivery draws nearer, Page, alienated from Cera and the whole highschool environment, strikes up an unusual friendship with Bateman.

Only that's not what Page needs, something she doesn't understanduntil things have already started to break down. It isn't until sherealizes she isn't equipped to deal with her suddenly adult problemsthat she's able to start confronting them.

"Juno" is something of a battle between its cast, which is awesome,and its script, which is so tone-deaf to the way anyone under 30 talksthat it may well have been penned by a foreign species that is born atthe age of 80, is on Social Security before they can walk, goo-gooingabout their medical ailments before they can talk, and dies withoutever meeting any of these strange beings called "kids." Written byDiablo Cody (and yes, that is a stage name, though personally I think"Hitler Hickock" would be even edgier), Page's clever-clever dialogueis meant to reflect both her individuality and her immaturity.

Problem is, it doesn't sound like spontaneously clever talk, it soundslike a college sophomore's attempt to be the world's wittiest internetmessage board commentator. (Something that really angries up myblood, since I already proved I was the king on the "Return of theKing" boards '04. Frodo lives, mother-effer.) Page and her friendsdo a good job bringing their dialogue back to earth, but when you'recrushed under the colossal obnoxiousness of lines like "That's onedoodle that can't be undid, homeskillet" and "Honest to blog," there'sonly so much you can do to prevent everything you're saying from beingcrippled by the glibness. Is this movie about the characters, orabout how zippy Cody can write youth dialogue?

The older set, particularly J.K. Simmons, Page's supporting dad, arefreer to be funny and real. And "Juno's" heart's definitely in theright place. Its relationships are tricky things, constantlyshifting, sometimes without the characters even realizing it. Peopleare confused, defensive, have to get over themselves before they'reable to find what they're after.

Which they eventually mostly do, resulting in some warmth that wouldhave been much stronger if the movie's central relationship had beendeveloped further--as is, it's a pretty big cheat--or if directorJason Reitman hadn't tied so much of its emotional depths to WesAnderson-esque indie rock songs. It's calculated, meant to appeal topeople like us (you know, people who read internet reviews and arelikely to watch sweet, gentle, but hip movies), and only distractsfrom the things the film does well.

"Juno's" a movie of a few honest moments marred by a heavy coat ofartificiality. For all the talk around it, including some thatinvolves the "O" word, there's too much that's either missing oraggravatingly contrived to make for more than a barely-satisfyingfilm; for every part that pulled me in, two more drove me out.

Grade: C+

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