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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Review: Juno

There doesn’t seem to be much left to say about Juno. It’s every bit as smart and funny as you’ve heard. It’s well acted, well paced, and definitely worth seeing. It is also, of all the films gunning for Best Picture this year, the one that seems most likely to be on the receiving end of backlash by the time the Oscars actually roll around, and one that is already being politicized in ways the filmmakers probably didn’t intend or anticipate.

Juno centers on 16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) who has sex once with her friend Paulie (Michael Cera) and finds herself pregnant. Having decided to keep the baby, and found prospective adoptive parents (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), the film follows Juno through her pregnancy and her attempts to define her relationship with Paulie in light of these recent developments. Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody present the characters very clearly, not letting any of them lapse into being stupid for the sake of a cheap joke or as a shortcut for propelling the film forward. The characters in this film – from Juno and her friends to her parents – are excellently drawn, fully fleshed in a way that characters in comedies aren’t always allowed to be. Ellen Page is the standout, but Garner, Batement, and J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney (as Juno’s father and stepmother) also give solid performances. Michael Cera is good, too, but he ought to be given that this is the same role he seems to play in everything. Hopefully as his career progresses, he’ll branch out into different kinds of characters.

The film walks a fine line. Some people will find it clever, and others will find it too clever by half, and I worry that the film might ultimately be undone by the amount of goodwill that it has already built up. After months spent hearing how good it is and how funny, I know of a few people who’ve walked out of it claiming that it isn’t that funny. The hype that it’s been building up since it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival has undoubtedly helped it find its audience, but the ensuing Juno lovefest in the media is also probably starting to turn people off or setting people’s expectations too high. This is a great movie, but it isn’t the best movie ever made. This is a great comedy, but not the best comedy ever made.

Hype is one of the reasons why I worry that this movie is a prime contender for backlash, and the other is an aspect of its subject matter. People have already begun to make note that between this film and Knocked Up, 2007 was a year with little room for the pro-choice point-of-view (which, frankly, doesn’t really make it any different from any other year. The only film I can think of in recent years that has actively explored a pro-choice argument was Citizen Ruth, which completely copped out at the end). Juno does consider having an abortion, but the time spent on this decision is brief and the film doesn’t really engage the process of her choice. With the United States going into an election year where the pro-choice/pro-life debate is already a hot button issue, and with the recent announcement of 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears' pregnancy, the excellence of the film might soon be eclipsed by the politics attached to it.

I hope that Juno rises above any problems that politics and media saturation might present, because it really is a wonderful movie. The acting is uniformly good and the story progresses in a way that is very believable, especially in terms of Juno’s relationship with Paulie. The performance by Page and the screenplay by Cody both seem to be givens for Oscar nominations, but hopefully some love with also be shown to the supporting cast, all of whom are given a moment of their own to shine.

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