With the critical accolades, awards nominations (and wins), boffo box-office, a can’t-lose premise, and a fine ensemble directed by the man who made 2005’s best movie (Thank You for Smoking), I don’t think I was looking forward to anything more than Juno. I even had usually reliable friends raving about this thing. One said, “It’s the rare movie where you can believe every good thing said about it.” He has very discriminating tastes, so it didn’t even seem as much like quote-whoring as it looks there, nakedly in print. He acted astonished and impressed, and I decided, “I must see this movie.” Unfortunately, laziness prevailed, so I didn’t bother to see it until two weeks ago…
…and then I nearly walked out before the first scene gave way to the opening credits. The only thing that kept me there, aside from hardly earned money that could no longer be refunded, was all the external goodwill this movie had built up. But right off the bat, my first thought: “This is some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard.” Seems like as good a place as any to start.
The Dialogue, Part I: One Doodle that Can’t Be Undid, Homeskillet
Don’t think I have a problem with stylized, hyper-real dialogue. If you ignore Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, his liberal grandstanding, and the last 15 minutes of Charlie Wilson’s War, a sound argument could be made that Aaron Sorkin writes some of the most interesting, vivid, and poetic dialogue of anybody working today. David Mamet is great when he’s not being a misogynist. Even Paul Thomas Anderson writes some great dialogue. He hasn’t yet mastered third acts or matching “quirky” with “plausible,”* but his dialogue consistently comes in second place (after cinematography) on the list of good things about his movies.
Read this and tell me Juno doesn’t contain some of the worst dialogue in cinematic history: “That ain’t no Etch-a-Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be undid, homeskillet.” Marvel at that. If you’ve seen the movie, you’re probably remembering Rainn Wilson’s baffling cartoon-character delivery of the line. You’re probably remembering the horrible attempt to throw us in medias res with a frenetic opening scene that doesn’t match anything else in the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie, you’re probably wondering what sort of alien language Diablo Cody has chosen for her movie.
Let me tell you: the language in Juno is like that one kid in junior high who’s an outcast, always ridiculed for his utter lack of coolness. So he monitors how the “cool kids” act, what they’re into, what they’re wearing, and he goes out and buys some too-tight acid-washed jeans and has his mom cut holes in them and run them through the dryer 40 times, a leather Members Only jacket, a Ramones t-shirt, a pair of gold-rimmed aviator glasses, a bandanna, and a Raw Punk Classix Vol. 1 tape. Then he comes to school on Monday, and he’s ridiculed for trying so fucking hard to be hip and cool, to transform himself from the outcast with the periodic table of elements t-shirt to the badass who shoves sticks into dead squirrels in the woods behind the public library.
There’s a nearly imperceptible line between being just cool enough and trying so hard you embarrass yourself. Diablo Cody’s dialogue goes so far past that line you can’t even see it on the horizon, creating a screenplay that wants to be quotable but is so loaded with unnecessary verbiage and trying-hard-to-be-obscure-without-being-in-any-way-obscure pop culture references that it’s almost as unquotable as any given sentence on this blog. Can’t people just talk? Why try to force it by making everything so florid and rhymey and alliterative and just plain unnatural?
There’s an inherent musicality in natural conversation, even conversation riddled with pop culture references, à la Kevin Smith. Diablo Cody doesn’t have enough confidence in her story or characters (not even flawless Juno) to just let the people talk. Every line has to sound like Kerouac on mushrooms. If this had been done in a clever attempt to show that Juno herself masks crippling self-doubt, the horrible dialogue would have been justified. Juno can’t have self-doubt, though; she’s perfect. Also, the fact that every character who isn’t Vanessa sounds exactly like Juno just points to lazy/awful writing. Nothing clever here.
The Dialogue, Part II: Thundercats Are Go!
I would have cut this movie so much slack if it had been set in 1995 instead of 2007. It would still have awful dialogue, but at least it wouldn’t destroy what little credibility it has by making references a 2007 16-year-old would never, ever say, probably never even know.
Let’s start with the stupidest and most obvious: “Thundercats are go!” Aside from trying way too hard to be “wacky” and “clever” (which I will dive into more when I discuss the character of Juno), would any kid born after 1990 know or care about Thundercats? Would they go the extra mile to combine it with a Thunderbirds reference (a reference she’d be even less likely to know)? Would their parents have a clue what they were talking about? Have they even played reruns of Thundercats since it went off the air? I could see a kid born 10 years earlier knowing and making this reference. (And yes, I know plans were recently announced to both relaunch a Thundercats animated series and created a CGI film. I know far, far too much about this, so all you Juno lovers better not jump my shit about this. They are turning the animated series into some kind of Barbie and the Rockers/Hannah Montana shit stain and using the movie, like Transformers, to cram nostalgia down the throats of idiots my age. One is too young for your average teenager, one is too old, and the fact remains that neither is out yet.)
The bit about Juno wanting to watch Blair Witch Project because she “hadn’t seen it since it came out.” Do the math. She would have been seven or eight when that movie came out. Despite her pointlessly name-checking of Dario Argento, I can’t imagine Juno’s parents (portrayed as always having her best interests in mind) taking her—or allowing someone 17 or older to take her—to see Blair Witch. So what the fuck? If you wrote the screenplay in 2001 and have been hustling it for five years, the least you could do is update the reference to Saw or something so it makes some kind of sense.
The Bone Collector/Morgan Freeman thing. HE WASN’T EVEN IN THE MOVIE. I’ve read a few fans of the movie decry this nitpick by saying it’s a “subtle” way of pointing out Juno doesn’t know everything. Except that contradicts…pretty much everything else that’s established regarding Juno’s character. It’s just a sloppy error, almost like…
The story behind the name “Juno.” Which we never needed to know, for one thing. I hate it when movies think the names of their characters are so clever, unique, interesting, and/or symbolic that it requires a pseudo-poignant scene explaining where the name came from. Fuck you. The only person dumb enough to name a kid “Juno MacGuff” is a screenwriter. But that’s not the point. The point is:
JUNO IS A ROMAN GODDESS. NOT GREEK. You’d think a father so obsessed with Greek mythology would have picked up on that. Or a screenwriter with access to Google. It’s such an easy fucking fix: change his fixation to Roman mythology, or name her Hera MacGuff (or don’t stop everything to explain it in the first place). The end. A half-second of “find-and-replace” would have made this scene 100% less retarded. It disappoints me not only that Diablo Cody apparently did not know this, but that nobody in the cast or crew felt the need to take three seconds and look it up. Shit, I haven’t even thought about ancient myths since sixth grade, and I knew off the top of my head that Juno was Roman. I couldn’t have told you her backstory or the name of her Greek doppelgänger (until I took five seconds to look it up)—but I knew she wasn’t Greek.
There are other annoying references that a 2007 16-year-old would be unlikely to know or care about, but these were the three that bugged me the most.
And while this should maybe fall under the category of “story,” my most hated part of the movie has more to do with the lazy voiceover than with the story per se: “It started with a chair”/”It ended with a chair.” Has there ever been a lamer attempt to bookend a story? Christ, it almost makes “he was good in chair” sound urbane and witty. I’m sure I will delve more into “the chair” later, when I explore the story problems. But before I get there…
I will say this: Juno MacGuff is the single most obnoxious lead character to appear in a film in a decade. The last truly embarrassing protagonist I can remember is Adam Sandler in The Waterboy (a movie I found funny, but Sandler’s horrible mushmouth accent almost sunk the whole thing). Her main flaw—get ready to embrace the irony—is that the screenplay would have us believe she’s flawless. Juno is portrayed as the smartest, cleverest, bestest person around. We get a lot of furtive glances and uncomfortable moments from other characters, but they amount to the movie telling us: Juno is so cool, so fresh, so original that these squares and old fogies just don’t understand her uniqueness. Never fear, though. They will be won over by her plucky charm, while she will remain an unchanged testament to perfection.
I’d like to compare her to Enid from Ghost World. That’s another character who is obnoxious and self-absorbed in similar ways, though not nearly to the extent of Juno. The difference is, throughout Ghost World, every single character gives her at least a small amount of shit for her obnoxiousness, and by the end of the movie she decides to grow the fuck up. No such luck with Juno; she is untouchable, and I wish the movie had portrayed her as simply delusional, while everyone around her is just waiting for the day that she snaps out of it and stops acting like a douchenozzle. Instead, they try to make us buy into Juno as an ideal person.
There are two moments that approach honesty—when Mark calls Juno out on “not being alive” during her chosen “best time for music” (after she stupidly argues, “You had to be there”), and when Paulie Bleeker confesses he tries really hard to be cool. I just wish moments like these were enough to make Juno pause for a bit of self-examination. But hey, who needs to take a step back and reevaluate perfection? There’s nothing she could do to become more perfect, right? …right.
Meanwhile, with the exception of Olivia Thirlby’s overcaffeinated performance as Leah, did every other actor in the movie ingest massive quantities of barbiturates in preparation for the movie? These characters don’t react to anything!
I know it’s supposed to be somewhat funny and ironic that Juno’s dad and stepmom are supportive of the pregnancy, but it just comes across as lazily copping out in the face of truly interesting conflict. Same deal with another pivotal moment: Mark and Vanessa’s divorce. It’s so laconic, it barely exists as a plot point. I’m not asking for screaming matches and hair-pulling (it’s supposed to be a comedy, after all), but this is one of the rare dramatic works that backs away from conflict and interesting character and story development—the fundamentals of dramatic structure—in favor of dropping a few more references to punk bands so obscure, they have greatest-hits CDs.
Full disclosure: when the lights first came up, I said to myself, “Well, I hated the first hour, but it really redeemed itself in the last 30 minutes.” In fact, in thinking so hard about (a) how I could hate two-thirds of a movie but decide the final third was enough to redeem the remainder and (b) why I disliked significant chunks of a movie that seems universally loved, I came around to officially hating it. Because what I liked about the third act does not hold up under close examination. At all.
I will deal with the third act specifically in a minute, but first, the main problem with the whole movie: it has no idea what its story is. Structurally, it couldn’t prop up an empty thimble without breaking apart. It pretends to know what it’s about: a teenager who is unexpectedly impregnated and decides to keep the baby. A winning premise given the most irresponsible and reckless treatment of any movie tackling a taboo subject. “Hey, teen girls living in a world where the pregnancy rate increases exponentially on a weekly basis: you can carry the baby to term and sell it off to a yuppie couple with no physical or emotional consequences. No muss, no fuss.” Good call, movie! I’m glad so many people are seeing you, because that’s really a message that needs to be delivered to the masses.
Whether a great idea in theory or a shallow movie in practice, it doesn’t matter. The narrative doesn’t stick with the premise. Maybe that’s why they tacked on “the chair” bookends. “Gee, they brought up a chair at the beginning and then again at the end, so I guess this is a complete story.” The chair becomes symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the movie: an impossible-to-believe protagonist coupled with lazy attempts to hold the story on a steady course it doesn’t want to go down. It also speaks to the complete non-effect the pregnancy has on her, physically and emotionally. She was only two months pregnant at the time, but seriously? Moving a bunch of furniture from a house to a front lawn? By herself? That can’t be healthy.
Now, the chair annoyed me, but I did initially buy into the story, meandering as it was. And there’s one reason for that: the last five minutes. These precious minutes contain two rare moments of emotional honesty. Nothing in Juno is more effective than Jennifer Garner’s performance as Vanessa, and those last few moments pack a nice emotional punch. I bought into that almost as fully as I bought into Bleeker quietly comforting Juno in the hospital. Then they sang a horrible song and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Bleeker comforting Juno, and their little song at the end, and the joviality expressed in the very last scene, as she happily rides her bike to her man, are actually reminders of why the story doesn’t work.
Again, it’s a problem with Cody pulling punches and losing the real truth and intrigue of the piece. As soon as we’re introduced to the Lorings, the entire movie becomes a different animal. The more Juno inserts herself into their lives (or, at least, Mark’s), the more interesting it becomes.
It all goes off the rails in the third act, though. First, Juno’s pseudo-pining for Bleeker, and their reconciliation, shows how one-sided and potentially disastrous their relationship is. We’re supposed to think Juno’s flawless, but when they got together and Juno declared her love for him, I immediately felt very, very sorry for him. Because she’s obnoxious and bossy and, for the most part, looks down on Bleeker. You could make arguments for different levels of emotional complexity in the characters, but to me I read her purest motivation as: her entire life has spiraled out of control, so she chose to regain that control by forging a relationship where she can boss a sweet, dopey kid around.
It’s around this point that the movie stops being about getting TEEN PREGNANT and the potential problems of getting a bit too close to the surrogate parents. It turns into a CW teen soap, and not a very good one. Consequently, we get no resolution to the real story. Yes, Vanessa gets her baby. Yes, she and Mark get divorced. Yes, one can infer Juno never sees either of them again. But where’s all the emotional fallout? The third act turning point—the divorce—should have given us so much insight into these three characters, who are the true centerpiece of the movie, but once again Cody wimps out and tries to convince us that, hey, these characters we’ve spent most of the movie with don’t matter much anymore.
The third act mostly sticks a big, pointy knife into the second act, so what was the point of Vanessa and Mark? Why make us care about them and their story and then not see it through to the end? (Vanessa, alone, receiving the baby does not qualify as a satisfying resolution to their story, emotionally honest or not.)
Much of my criticism has been focused on the screenplay, because it’s fucking terrible.
Sadly, I can’t let Jason Reitman off the hook. After directing Thank You for Smoking, the most stylistically vibrant comedy since Election, what happened? Did he look at a bunch of Wes Anderson movies and get all the wrong ideas? I admire him for attempting something so different in style from his debut, but I don’t admire him for doing it poorly. I just don’t understand how the direction here could be so flat and lifeless, from the non-reactive supporting characters to the dramatically inert story. Because of my love of Thank You for Smoking and its pitch-black merry-prankster vibe, I wish I could believe Reitman directed this movie as a practical joke, that he hated the screenplay and wanted to satirize the entire “quirky” “independent” “comedy” movement.
Unfortunately, the movie is a little too sincere at the end for me to believe it. (Also, there’s the practical question of why a hot director would waste his time and potentially sabotage his career by making something intentionally terrible. But hey, a true merry prankster doesn’t think through shit like that. Trust me.)
I can partly blame Reitman-cum-Anderson for this. Also Ellen Page, who apparently had input on much of the soundtrack. Despite the fact that there’s textual evidence that Juno would hate the kind of music played throughout the movie, Page has insisted she made the selections believing it’s the kind of music Juno would listen to. Seriously, though, can we declare a moratorium on whiny, half-sung/half-spoken acoustic indie music in indie movies? I know these movies are usually done on the cheap, but I think you can afford to clear some music by people who know how to tune/play their instruments.
Am I asking too much?
The Bottom Line
What does Juno need to cross that line into regular, not-trying-too-hard coolness? Self-awareness. Juno the character is as flawed as her eponymous film. If the pregnancy experience caused her to learn something about herself or the people around her and grow as a human being, or if more of the characters made pointed references to her immaturity and obnoxiousness, and it caused Juno to take a few steps and realize hey, she’s 16 and pregnant. Even if she’s giving the baby away, maybe it’s time to grow up. (I don’t qualify her easy-way-out “love” for Bleeker as “growing up” or doing any kind of difficult soul-searching. It’s as random as one of Juno’s pop culture references.) Instead, everything goes right back to normal. Nothing about her experience changes Juno at all. Why did we watch this movie? The premise and the parts of the story that work indicate that, with several rewrites (and probably a different screenwriter altogether, maybe even a different director), Juno could have been a wonderful film. Instead, it’s a disappointing mess.
I’m going to go ahead and declare this the most overrated film of 2007. All the accolades, good reviews, and boffo box-office have baffled the shit out of me. I can’t see what everyone else sees, even though I wanted to like it. I’m just glad, after thinking about it too long and too hard, I can articulate my rage semi-coherently. Since nearly everybody I know loves the shit out of it, it’s nice to lay out all of the problems with it so I can ruin their day. To me, it’s 2007’s Pan’s Labyrinth or Garden State: I hate it deeply and specifically, and everybody hates me for not only my dislike, but my ability to explain in blunt (but detailed) terms why I feel that way.
At the very least, I think the cast should win some sort of special award for making that alien language of Diablo Cody’s sound like words actual humans would say.
If you read through this and said, “This fucking guy—he’s just jealous of Diablo Cody,” I say to you:
YOU’RE FUCKING RIGHT. I AM. Good God, I wish I could hatch a calculated scheme to take a stripper job solely to get a book deal out of it, then use my status as a 10th-tier “journalist” to hustle a screenplay written largely in the same style and largely about the same person (face it: Juno MacGuff is either Diablo Cody or the person Cody wishes she could have been at 16), adding some minor taboo subjects to make it “edgy” and “interesting,” and then have that screenplay propel me to an A-list writer nominated for a shit-ton of awards. Yes, I am jealous. She is the kind of hack I want to be.
*Note: I haven’t seen There Will Be Blood yet, so maybe he has. [Back]