Thursday, December 20, 2007


Turning the Page on lesser films

By Edward Copeland
For the second year in a row, Ellen Page gives a startlingly good performance much better than the film that contains it. Last year, it was Hard Candy. This year, it's Juno, which is by no means as wretched as Hard Candy, but has been flowered with more praise than it deserves.

This isn't to say I disliked Juno, just that much of the time, the dialogue in Diablo Cody's screenplay is a bit too hip, cute and trite for its own good. Luckily, Page delivers a performance so good, that she makes words that would ring false coming from other actors' mouths sound true.

In fact, Page isn't alone in this. The entire cast seems to develop characters richer than they should be, from J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno's dad and stepmom to Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner as the potential parents for Juno's unexpected child.

The script itself finally catches up with the performances in its third act, delivering depth and emotion to a film that's dominated by snark up to that point. One other problem with Juno is that it's one of those films where the vast majority of its best moments have been given away in its trailer (including most of Rainn Wilson's cameo as the drug store clerk).

While Juno deserves points for painting a more realistic but still funny look at a situation similar to that in Knocked Up, especially concerning abortion, Juno's quick dismissal of that choice rings hollow. Then again, if either Page's character here or Katherine Heigl's character in Knocked Up had opted for abortions, there wouldn't be a story for either film.

Following his work in the Apatow factory's Superbad, Michael Cera once again makes a good case for staking a claim as the best straight man in comic films today. His look of stricken fear when he learns of Juno's pregnancy is priceless, as are most of his scenes.

Still, as a devoted Arrested Development fan, I do feel cheated that the story doesn't allow for an onscreen reunion of Bateman and Cera. Overall, I did like Juno, especially for Page's singular creation. I just wish the screenplay took a more daring and less wiseass path than it does.

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Maybe I was just in the right mood for it, but I really enjoyed this one. I get what you’re saying about the dialogue, but once I adjusted to it, it didn’t seem forced or precious – it was right for the characters, and made sense within the context of their world. It’s hyperrealistic, to be sure – people don’t talk that way in real life, but it’s no more stylized than the kind of slangy speech you’d hear in 1940s screwball comedies or film noir. Fairly early on, I stopped being conscious of the artificial qualities of the speech, and bought into it.

Page is remarkable – I think you have to go back to Winona Ryder in Heathers for the last time a teenage character this precociously sharp-witted was rendered in such utterly convincing terms. Other smart girls in the intervening years – Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, Natasha Lyonne, among others – can’t avoid sounding scripted at times; you don’t necessarily believe the actress is as smart as the character she’s playing, or that she could up with that shit on her own. With Page – as with Ryder – you never doubt it for a second. She takes very stylized dialogue with a very sophisticated bent and makes it entirely credible; and the humor, warmth and intelligence she brings to the part are right on the money. Bravo.
I found the dialogue refreshing and very funny without being overly clever. It might start a teenager trend, which is better than the shit these kids are popping nowadays.

Have you been around teenagers lately? Have you listened to that abbreviated Instant Message/Text Message shit they employ while talking? It sounds like a bunch of letters. "Oh WTF! My BFF got pwned!" If Juno sounded like that, it would have been more realistic, sure, but it would also have made my ears bleed.

Page is very very very good. She's smart and real, and a lot of the time she's using language as a defense mechanism, which I found fascinating and complex. I also liked the supporting cast, including Schillinger from Oz as Juno's dad. His line about punching Paulie Bleecker was priceless.

As Mr. Bleecker, Cera is also great. I don't know what it is about that guy, but I just want to do a SuperBad and profess my platonic love for him. He seems like the kind of best friend I wished I had in high school. He's in the two best comedies of 2007.

I'm not sure how daring this movie needed to be. It mentioned abortion, something the right-wing Knocked Up couldn't even utter, and the fact it ends the way it does was a surprise considering the formula for these types of films.

If there is one flaw in the film for me, it's the sudden turn of the Jason Bateman character. That seemed a little forced. Other than that, I won't turn up my nose at Ebert for his love of this picture.
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